Swiss Envoy Sees Lesson for Democracies in Ukraine War

For Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador in Washington, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing a set of democratic reforms known at the time as the “Prague Spring.”

“That’s when I realized for the first time what it meant when free people are being attacked by a bully,” he said in a recent interview. “I was 6 years old.”

Describing those events as his “first conscious political memory,” Pitteloud said, “I remember our cities being flagged with Czechoslovakian flags, I remember the refugees, I remember our old car, our old family car — with Czechoslovakian flags all over the car — just to [show] our solidarity.”

Now 60, Pitteloud said he is proud that his traditionally neutral country has chosen to join other democratic nations in supporting Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty through economic boycotts and votes at the United Nations.

But, he said, he hopes the war will drive home to Western leaders the need for closer economic cooperation even in peacetime and reverse the drift in recent years toward greater barriers to trade “even among nations in the free world.”

“The conflict in Ukraine is a tragic reminder of the importance of international collaboration and the need for close political and economic ties between democratic nations,” Pitteloud told VOA.

Switzerland, he said, is “absolutely convinced” that democratic nations should “intensify” collaboration, and expand trade relations and technology exchanges if they are to prevail in an increasingly competitive global environment.

The issue is of economic as well as geopolitical interest for Switzerland. The exchange of intellectual property accounts for the largest share of trade in services between the United States and Switzerland. While many Americans associate Switzerland with chocolate, watches and banks, in reality exchanges of high-tech and intellectual property now make up 80% of Switzerland’s trade and economic presence in the U.S., the ambassador said.

For Pitteloud, the successful relationship demonstrates that trade between nations that share the same values and norms can benefit both. “And that’s how it should be,” he said.

In a not-so-subtle pitch for his country, the ambassador said that when trading with Switzerland, the United States doesn’t need to worry about the theft of intellectual property or having its market flooded with cheap products.

“We don’t have cheap products,” he said, with a slight wink. Switzerland’s per capita GDP is about $20,000 higher than in the U.S.

While the war in Ukraine has prompted questions worldwide about oil and gas supplies, Pitteloud said Switzerland has benefited from having none of either.

“I think we’re extremely lucky not to have any natural resources,” he said. “We didn’t have oil, we didn’t have coal, we didn’t have diamonds, whatsoever. The only way to be competitive on the world market was to make a difference with the quality of the products that we had.”

Pitteloud said his country’s industrial development began in the 18th century with textiles. “Then we moved into the machinery industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry, and every time we had to have something better than the rest, because we had to pay more for raw material than everyone else because we didn’t have any.”

If being compelled to make something from nothing has pushed the Swiss to become masters of precision, the country’s top diplomat in Washington says he’s spotted a quality in American life that his fellow countrymen could profitably emulate.

“The U.S. is a country where failing is proof that you tried; in Switzerland, failing is almost considered a social crime; in that sense, we need to be more American.”

A blessing his country shares with the United States, he said, is the talent that arrived through successive waves of immigration.

“You would be surprised at how many of the biggest and most successful companies in Switzerland were created by economic or political refugees of Europe who came because they couldn’t find in their own countries the conditions to operate,” the envoy said.

“Switzerland was, for a while, after the revolution of 1848, the only liberal democracy in Central Europe,” he added. The world-renowned watch industry in Switzerland, for example, benefited from French Protestants who brought their skills when they fled persecutions in 1685.

“It was an incredible opportunity for Switzerland,” he said. “In the end what made the U.S. so successful and what made Switzerland so successful is we’re able to draw good people into our society, into our universities, into our economy.”

Pitteloud said he believes the future belongs to countries that value and encourage diversity.

“What most people don’t know is that 35% of the Swiss population is either foreign, foreign-born or second generation,” he said, adding that he himself is “one-fourth [native] Swiss, two-fourths or one-half Italian, one-fourth French, and my wife is from Rwanda, Central Africa. I’m a typical Swiss!”

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Donors Pledge $2.4 Billion for Afghan Relief

International donors stepped up Thursday with more than $2.4 billion to keep Afghanistan from a humanitarian collapse, despite misgivings about the country’s Taliban government.

“Without immediate action, we face a starvation and malnutrition crisis in Afghanistan,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a virtual pledging conference. “People are already selling their children and their body parts, in order to feed their families. Afghanistan’s economy has effectively collapsed.”

With Afghanistan suffering from the effects of decades of war, successive severe droughts and COVID-19, the United Nations has appealed for $4.4 billion to assist 20 million Afghans with food, shelter, medical care and other essentials — its largest-ever single appeal.

Among the major donors were Britain with $374 million; the United States, which announced nearly $204 million in new assistance; Germany with $218 million and Japan with $109 million. In all, the U.N. said 41 donors pledged new funding.

With more than 24 million Afghans — 60% of the population — needing humanitarian assistance, and 9 million people at risk of famine, it is one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world.

This week, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths briefly visited the capital, Kabul, and Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

“I saw human suffering during those three days that left me quite speechless,” Griffiths said from Doha, Qatar, where he had just arrived. Qatar, along with the United Nations, Britain and Germany, are co-hosting the pledging conference.

Griffiths visited a children’s hospital and was deeply shaken by the sight of tiny babies too weak to even cry.

“In Kabul, I visited the Indira Gandhi hospital and saw severely malnourished children and newborns — newborns — clinging to life, sharing run-down, rickety incubators,” he said. “These babies were emaciated, listless and far too small. Mind you, this is downtown Kabul, not out in the rural, poorer areas of the country.”

Griffiths said humanitarians are just managing to stave off extreme food insecurity, preserve some basic services and are “barely preventing a complete meltdown of the country.”

Since the Taliban takeover in August, Afghanistan’s economy has gone into free fall.

Billions of dollars in international assistance that propped up the economy has dried up, and $9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves have been frozen abroad, leading to a severe financial crisis.

Western donors have reservations about their funding being appropriated or misused by the Taliban. The Taliban’s decision last week to renege on a pledge to resume education on March 23 for girls from secondary school up has confirmed a deep mistrust of them and the belief that they have not changed from their previous time in control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when they repressed human rights.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that decision was “inexcusable.”

“It is impossible not to feel a sense of profound outrage when we see girls and young women across Afghanistan wracked with tears as they learn they will have to leave their classrooms after all,” she said in a video message to the conference.

Thomas-Greenfield and many others called for the reversal of this decision, emphasizing that education is a fundamental human right and essential to the country’s economic recovery and stability.

While there is a lack of confidence in the Taliban, there was strong international support for the Afghan people and a recognition of the need to help stabilize the country and its economy.

Next month during the spring meetings of the international financial institutions, there will be a ministerial meeting to further discuss the Afghan financial crisis.


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Could Russia Get Away With War Crimes in Ukraine?

War crimes happen whenever there is war, but seldom have they been investigated in real time and within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, as is happening with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After a brief initial hesitation to publicly brand the architects of the Ukraine invasion as war criminals, the United States and its European allies began issuing explicit statements about what they were seeing before the war was one month old.

“We’ve seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.

“Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.”

Normally, investigations into such allegations take place after the guns go silent so that investigators can inspect war-torn regions, document evidence, talk to victims and substantiate crimes.

But in the case of Ukraine, even the normally cautious International Criminal Court has been moved to action within the first week. “I have decided to proceed with opening an investigation,” ICC prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan announced on February 28.

Khan’s probe into possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine must be authorized by the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber, and there appear to be many legal and political obstacles in the way.

Last resort

In July 1998, more than 100 countries signed the so-called Rome Statute, creating an international judicial institution that would investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity internationally. It would also prosecute individuals responsible for such crimes.

Since it began operations in July 2002, the ICC has handled 30 cases, resulting in 10 convictions, 35 arrest warrants and four acquittals. From those convictions, 17 individuals have been incarcerated at an ICC detention center in the Netherlands.

Only an ICC member state, of which there are 123, can refer a case to the court for investigation and prosecution.

Ukraine is not a member. Neither is the U.S., Russia or China.

However, Ukraine has accepted ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate alleged war crimes on its territory.

“The ICC is a court of last resort,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union. He told VOA that the court acts after it has determined that the country where the crimes were perpetrated is unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute war criminals.

U.S. laws even limit the ways the U.S. can support ICC investigations, according to Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

“The U.S. has actually taken the position that there are different ways to hold alleged Russian perpetrators to account, citing Ukrainian law and the possibility of prosecutions under that law, prosecutions by third states with jurisdiction, and then finally the ICC,” Whiting told VOA.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called his Russian counterpart “a war criminal” who should not “remain in power.”

Double standards

As of now, the ICC has 17 open investigations, mostly in Africa and Asia. The U.S. government has strongly opposed two ICC investigations — in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories.

In Afghanistan, a state member of the ICC, the U.S. conducted its longest foreign war for about two decades. The ICC has a long list of crimes allegedly committed by warring parties, including U.S. forces and Taliban fighters, against Afghan civilians from 2003 onward.

The U.S. government, under former President Donald Trump, went as far as to impose sanctions on an ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

Successive U.S. administrations have also objected to the ICC’s probing of alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

“I think the U.S. is still seen as hypocritical in the way that it’s engaging with the ICC, because it says as long as the ICC is not addressing or not dealing with accountability for our own conduct, we will be fine with that,” said the ACLU’s Dakwar.

He said that policy has undermined the ICC. “Either you are on the side of international justice, or you are on the other side,” Dakwar added.

The Biden administration has lifted the sanctions on the ICC prosecutor tasked to investigate the Afghanistan case, but the U.S. government says it still disagrees “strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations.”

Dakwar said the U.S. “is really standing at a juncture here because it has to decide on which side of history or which side of international justice it wants to be.”

Bargaining chip?

Lea Brilmayer, a professor of law at Yale University, told VOA there is no way to bring Russia into the criminal court. “It’s wishful thought by politicians when they say Russia should be held accountable for the war crimes in Ukraine,” she said.

In general, she said, only defeated leaders face trials, such as the Nazi generals and politicians who were tried in Nuremberg after World War II. But Russia is unlikely to face the fate of Hitler’s Germany.

While waging the war in Ukraine, Russian officials have held talks with representatives from Ukraine and other countries.

Some experts see the accusations of war crimes against Russian President Vladimir Putin as political rhetoric and a possible bargaining chip in future peace talks, rather than a viable effort to bring the Russians before any legal forum.

They note that in the brief history of the ICC, no world power has yet been investigated and tried for the wars it has conducted or sponsored in other countries.

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Turkish Doctors Flee Amid Violence, Inflation and Indifference

Turkey is in the grip of nationwide protests by doctors over surging violence and worsening economic conditions. The country is witnessing an unprecedented increase in doctors quitting to take jobs overseas, which as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, threatens one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s major achievements.

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Kenya Supreme Court Rejects President’s Bid to Change Constitution 

In a ruling Thursday, Kenya’s Supreme Court blocked changes to the constitution initiated by President Uhuru Kenyatta. Six of the seven judges ruled constitutional amendments must come from ordinary citizens, not the president. 

Following the hotly-contested 2017 election that almost split the country apart, Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga unveiled a plan they called the Building Bridges Initiative. 

The initiative would introduce the permanent office of prime minister and create 70 new constituencies.   

The two leaders argued the best way to avoid election-related violence that has plagued Kenya is to create more political positions. 

But the Supreme Court shot down changes in its ruling Thursday. Chief Justice Martha Koome read the verdict of the judges. 


“The president cannot initiate constitutional amendment and changes through the popular initiative under Article 257 of the constitution, Njoki Ndungu Supreme Court Judge dissenting,” Koome said. “Issue 2 the president initiated the amendment process initially, Njoki Ndungu and Lenaola Supreme Court Judges dissenting.” 

The Supreme Court agreed with the previous ruling of the two lower courts, the high court and the court of appeal, declaring the initiative unconstitutional. 


Odinga served as prime minister under a power sharing agreement that followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections.  However, the position was abolished after the 2012 polls. 


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Moldova Watches Ukraine with Special Concern

Moldova is watching the war in neighboring Ukraine with special concern. Like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and it has a very large Russian-speaking population – factors that for some Moldovans have sown fears of becoming the next target of Russian ambitions. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in southern Moldova.

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China-hosted Grouping Backs Afghanistan, Urges Taliban to Protect Rights of Afghans

Foreign ministers from Afghanistan’s neighbors met in China on Thursday to reaffirm support for the war-torn country and stress how important it is for Taliban rulers to protect rights of all Afghans, including women’s rights to an education.

Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and host China attended the meeting in the central Chinese city of Tunxi. Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were also among the participants.

A post-meeting statement noted “the importance of taking necessary, continuing steps in Afghanistan on ensuring women’s rights and children’s education, among others … safeguard the fundamental rights of all Afghans, including ethnic groups, women and children.”

It also noted Taliban commitments and pledges made to the global community that Afghan soil would not pose “any threats to the neighboring countries” nor will it give space to terrorist groups.

China has not yet recognized the Taliban government nor has the world at large. 

Analysts say the regional conference and multilateral sideline huddles underscore ramped up Chinese diplomatic engagement with de facto Afghan authorities to shore up bilateral relations 20 years after the United States and NATO-led troops withdrew from Afghanistan last August.

Chinese and other regional officials fear that continued instability in the troubled neighboring country could encourage terrorist groups to use Afghan soil for cross-border attacks.

Earlier, in a message to the regional huddle, Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed support for Afghanistan, calling for coordinated efforts to build a “brighter future” and promote “the steady transition” there.

“China always respects Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and has committed to supporting its pursuit of peace, stability and development,” Xi said.

“The country has come to a critical point of transition from chaos to order,” he said in the statement that Chinese Embassy officials in Islamabad shared with reporters.

Xi stressed that “a peaceful, stable, developing and prosperous Afghanistan” is what all Afghans aspire to. “It is also in the common interests of regional countries and the international community.”

However, the Chinese leader made no mention of human rights abuses the Taliban have allegedly committed against Afghans since the Islamist group seized power and established an interim government in Kabul seven months ago.

The China-hosted talks come just days after the male-only hardline Taliban leadership enacted a series of edicts, raising concerns the group is reintroducing the harsh Islamist rule it employed from 1996 to 2001, when human rights abuses such as the barring of women from education and work led to the country’s international isolation.

The Taliban have banned girls and women from attending school beyond the sixth grade. Women are not allowed to board planes or taxis unless accompanied by a male relative.

Men and women must visit public parks on separate days, and the use of mobile telephones in universities is prohibited. Male government employees have been instructed to wear a beard and adhere to a Taliban-authorized traditional Afghan dress code.

The de facto Afghan authorities have blocked international media broadcasts, including VOA and the BBC’s Pashto and Dari news programming. They have also banned foreign drama series on Afghan television channels.

The controversial actions have drawn global condemnation and demands that the Taliban immediately reverse them, warning it would undermine the group’s attempts to develop ties with the international community.

The Taliban’s Muttaqi told Thursday’s meeting that the group is working to make their government more inclusive, saying they have also effectively reduced the threat of Islamic State through military actions, claiming the terrorist group “exists in the country only symbolically.”

The Taliban official added that his government is ready to address concerns of other nations seeking increased foreign cooperation with Kabul.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told the conference in China that Moscow has accredited a Taliban-appointed diplomat to engage with Kabul. Other regional countries also have accredited Taliban envoys, including Beijing, Islamabad, Turkey, Tehran, Tashkent and Turkmenistan.

Lavrov reiterated concerns about the threat of terrorism from groups such as Islamic State spilling over into Russia through Central Asian countries. 

The Russian foreign minister noted growing trade and economic ties between Afghanistan and regional countries were contributing to the potential international recognition of the Taliban administration.

“I would like to note that the first Afghan diplomat who arrived in Moscow last month and was sent by the new authorities has received accreditation at the Russian Foreign Ministry,” he said.

“The plans of the Islamic State and its supporters to destabilize Central Asian states and export instability to Russia are of particular concern,” Lavrov said.

Participants at the regional conference called for unfreezing billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves, mostly held in the United States, to enable the country to deal with humanitarian and economic upheavals. The United Nations says more than half of Afghanistan’s estimated 40 million population face acute food shortages.

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DRC Joins EAC Regional Bloc to Facilitate Trade

The Democratic Republic of Congo this week became the seventh country to join the East African Community. The regional trade bloc, which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, now reaches a quarter of Africa’s population, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

The 90 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be able to move freely and do business in six other African countries.

The leaders of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda welcomed Congo to the East African Community in a ceremony Monday. 

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke, stressing cooperation as the group’s cornerstone.

“I proudly and warmly welcome our brothers and sisters from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the East African Community. We look forward to joining hands in strengthening our community together. Working together, we have more to gain than when we are separate,” Kenyatta said.

Ezra Munyambonera, an economic researcher at the Economic Policy Research Center, says Congo’s addition to the EAC will benefit all the countries in the bloc.

“It (the DRC) has a lot of resources [and it] joining the East Africa Community adds more to microeconomic conditions and microeconomic stability of the region in terms of foreign earnings and attracting investments in the region for wider economic growth,” Munyambonera said. 

The mineral-rich nation is a member of two more regional blocs, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or COMESA. 

Erastus Mwencha, a former secretary-general of COMESA, says the continent needs to scale up its production capabilities to benefit from integration and take advantage of its natural resources. 

“The tradable is not that much and so the region needs to develop trade with production, to really go beyond just looking at trade within but also to cater [to] the production aspect. The economies are not deep enough, we tend to produce primary products and because of that, they are not very much integrated,” Mwencha said.

The countries in the EAC bloc have not been able to fully establish a customs union, and while they are working on having a common currency by 2023, experts say that deadline likely will not be met. 

Mwencha says the DRC technology sector will provide more opportunities for entrepreneurs.   

“Whether you are looking at banking industries, fintech, because it’s a big country, which requires the banks to communicate throughout the country, or other services such as the education sector, health sector, there is a lot, in other words, of e-services,” Mwencha said.

As part of the East African Community, the DRC will enjoy lower tariffs and administrative barriers, something it hasn’t experienced for decades, despite using the ports of Mombasa, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to import most of its goods.

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Ghana’s Opposition File Lawsuit to Block Government’s Controversial E-Tax 

The political opposition in Ghana has filed a lawsuit with the country’s Supreme Court after lawmakers passed a controversial tax despite the party’s walk-out from parliament. Ghana’s government says the new tax on electronic transactions and transfers will raise money for the pandemic-hit economy. But critics say the tax will discourage trade and adds to the public’s economic burden.

Ghana’s opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) on Wednesday filed suit with the Supreme Court to block the government-backed tax on electronic transfers and transactions.

The NDC has called the so-called “E-Levy” of 1.5% “regressive” and unlawful because there was no quorum in parliament when it was passed. Opposition lawmakers had walked out of the proceedings in protest.

NDC lawmaker Mahama Ayariga, one of the plaintiffs, told VOA he is hopeful the Supreme Court will declare the tax unlawful.

“The speaker and the majority side knew they didn’t have the number; they hadn’t met the quorum and yet they proceeded and purported to have voted to pass the E-Levy… And if there wasn’t a quorum, there couldn’t have been a decision and so there could also not have been an E-Levy passed. So, the president has nothing before him to sign into law,” he said.

In his state of the nation address on Wednesday, Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo said the new tax would boost the economy as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite the protracted and sometimes acrimonious nature of proceedings, I am happy that the House has, finally, found it possible to pass the E-Levy,” he said. “I believe the levy is going to make a significant contribution to revenue mobilization and the management of the economy, and I want to thank members of the House for making this possible.”

Authorities say the tax is expected to raise about $900 million by the end of the year.

But most ordinary Ghanaians are opposed to the new tax, which will affect anyone using mobile money services.

Accra-based second-hand clothing trader Sophia Anane says it will harm her business.

“What are they using the revenue we generate from cocoa and oil for? The government wants to tax them on what little money they’re making in addition to what the telecommunications companies also deduct as commission. What is our fate?” she asks.

Some economists argue the government is wrong to burden Ghanaians with new taxes while they are still recovering from pandemic restrictions and disruptions.

Director of research at the Accra-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) John Kwakye the government should instead focus on improving tax collection.

“There are several loopholes in our tax system that if they were plugged, we’ll be able to raise our tax to GDP ratio to something like 20%. We’re now doing just about 12%. So, to me, if these other measures were being taken, I don’t think that even the E-Levy will be necessary,” he said.

Ghana’s Supreme Court is expected to hold a hearing on the opposition’s challenge to the new tax in the coming weeks.

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Ethiopia’s Afar Region Displaced Hope for End to War, Suffering

Fighting between Ethiopia’s federal government and forces from the country’s Tigray region has displaced more than two million people since November 2020, according to the U.N. This year, the fighting has shifted in the country’s Afar region, displacing more Ethiopians as well as refugees from neighboring Eritrea seeking safety. For VOA, Vinicius Assis reports from Afdera in Ethiopia’s Afar region.

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In Ukraine’s Lviv, Large Soccer Stadium Turned Into Refugee Shelter

The beautiful medieval city of Lviv in western Ukraine has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over Ukraine. One Local soccer stadium, built for the 2012 Euro Cup, has been turned into a refugee center. Anna Kosstutschenko reports for VOA in Lviv.
Videographer: Yuiry Dankevych

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UN Requesting Record $4.4 Billion for Afghan Relief

The United Nations said Thursday it is asking for a record $4.4 billion for assistance for millions of Afghans who need food, shelter, medical care, and other essentials, its biggest-ever appeal.

With more than 24 million Afghans, 60% of the population, needing humanitarian assistance, the United Nations calls Afghanistan one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

The U.N.’s humanitarian chief and emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, has been in Kabul for several days.  He says the lives of tens of millions of people are hanging by a thread.  He says he visited a children’s hospital soon after he arrived and was deeply shaken by what he saw.

“Tiny, listless newborn babies. Two to an incubator, suffering from acute, and sometimes severe, acute malnutrition. A mother caring for her severely malnourished baby after having already lost two children before,” Griffiths said.

Since the Taliban takeover in August, Afghanistan’s economy has gone into freefall. Billions of dollars in international aid have dried up, leading to the collapse of government services. People with no access to work have been forced to take out loans to survive, leading to a debt spike.

In addition, Afghanistan is suffering from its worst drought in 30 years.  

The U.N. is urgently appealing to international donors for support for the Afghan people. This is a hard sell, though, as few countries have confidence in the intention of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s de facto rulers. This trust was recently tested when the Taliban reversed its pledge to allow girls a secondary school education.

Qatar is a co-host of Thursday’s pledging conference and long-time facilitator in the political and humanitarian affairs of the people of Afghanistan. Adviser to Qatar’s deputy prime minister Majed Mohammed Al-Ansari says his government condemns the Taliban decision and hopes it will reconsider that position very soon.

“We have stressed that this decision will have ramifications on the human rights of Afghani people and on the economy of Afghanistan. And we stressed the importance of talking to the Taliban government and making it very clear to them that this is unacceptable, and it needs to be settled as soon as possible,” Al-Ansari said.

U.N. officials urge donors to swallow their political differences with the Taliban.  They say the core of the pledging conference is to save lives and to give Afghans hope for the future.

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Georgia Denounces South Ossetia’s Planned Vote on Joining Russia

Georgia on Thursday denounced as “unacceptable” plans announced by pro-Moscow separatists in the breakaway South Ossetia region to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

South Ossetia was in the center of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 after which the Kremlin recognized the territory — along with another separatist region, Abkhazia — as an independent state and stationed military bases there.

On Wednesday, South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov said the statelet would hold a referendum on joining Russia shortly after the April 10 “presidential election” there.

Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Thursday “it is unacceptable to speak of any referendums while the territory is occupied by Russia.”

“Such a referendum will have no legal force,” he told journalists. “The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Georgian region is occupied by Russia.”

Also on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow hasn’t taken any “legal” steps on the matter.

“But at the same time, we are talking about people of South Osseita expressing their opinion and we treat it with respect,” Peskov told reporters.

Bibilov’s spokeswoman Dina Gassiyeva told Thursday Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the decision to hold the referendum was “linked with the window of opportunity that opened in the current situation”, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, Bibilov said that South Ossetia had sent troops to fight alongside the invading Russian troops in Ukraine, where thousands of people were killed and more than 10 million displaced.

In August 2008, Russia launched an assault against Georgia which was battling pro-Russian militia in South Ossetia, after they shelled Georgian villages.

The fighting ended after five days with a European Union-mediated ceasefire but claimed more than 700 lives and displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians.

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Ukrainian President Says Defense Is at a ‘Turning Point’

Ukraine’s president said his country’s defense against the Russian invasion was at a “turning point” and again pressed the United States for more help, hours after the Kremlin’s forces reneged on a pledge to scale back some of their operations.

Russian bombardment of areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv and intensified attacks elsewhere in the country further undermined hopes for progress toward ending the bloody conflict that has devolved into a war of attrition. Civilians trapped in besieged cities have shouldered some of the worst suffering, though both sides said Thursday they would attempt another evacuation from the port city of Mariupol.

Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia.

A delegation of Ukrainian lawmakers visited Washington on Wednesday to push for more U.S. assistance, saying their nation needs more military equipment, more financial help and tougher sanctions against Russia.

“We need to kick Russian soldiers off our land, and for that we need all, all possible weapons,” Ukrainian parliament member Anastasia Radina said at a news conference at the Ukrainian Embassy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the case directly to U.S. President Joe Biden.

“If we really are fighting for freedom and in defense of democracy together, then we have a right to demand help in this difficult turning point. Tanks, aircraft, artillery systems. Freedom should be armed no worse than tyranny,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation, which he delivered standing in the dark outside the dimly lit presidential offices in Kyiv. He thanked the U.S. for an additional $500 million in aid that was announced Wednesday.

There seemed little faith that Russia and Ukraine will resolve the conflict soon, particularly after the Russian military’s about-face and its most recent attacks.

Russia said Tuesday that it would de-escalate operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” Zelenskyy and the West were skeptical. Soon after, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian shelling was hitting homes, stores, libraries and other civilian sites in or near those areas.

Britain’s Defense Ministry also confirmed “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv.

It said Thursday that “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units. Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”

Russian troops also stepped up their attacks on the Donbas region in the east and around the city of Izyum, which lies on a key route to the Donbas, after redeploying units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.

Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, said the Russian announcement turned out to be “a complete lie.”

“At night they didn’t decrease, but vice versa increased the intensity of military action,” Lomako said.

A top British intelligence official said Thursday that demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine were refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.

In a speech in the Australian capital Canberra, Jeremy Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency, said President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion, he said. Although Putin’s advisers appeared to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” he said.

U.S. intelligence officials have given similar assessments that Putin is being misinformed by advisers too scared to give honest evaluations.

Five weeks into the invasion that has left thousands dead, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country topped a staggering 4 million, half of them children, according to the United Nations.

“I do not know if we can still believe the Russians,” Nikolay Nazarov, a refugee from Ukraine, said as he pushed his father’s wheelchair at a border crossing into Poland. “I think more escalation will occur in eastern Ukraine. That is why we cannot go back to Kharkiv.”

Zelenskyy said the continuing negotiations with Russia were only “words without specifics.” He said Ukraine was preparing for concentrated new strikes on the Donbas.

Zelenskyy also said he had recalled Ukraine’s ambassadors to Georgia and Morocco, suggesting they had not done enough to persuade those countries to support Ukraine and punish Russia for the invasion.

“With all due respect, if there won’t be weapons, won’t be sanctions, won’t be restrictions for Russian business, then please look for other work,” he said.

During talks Tuesday in Istanbul, the faint outlines of a possible peace agreement seemed to emerge when the Ukrainian delegation offered a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral — dropping its bid to join NATO, as Moscow has long demanded — in return for security guarantees from a group of other nations.

Top Russian officials responded positively, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying Wednesday that Ukraine’s willingness to accept neutrality and look outside NATO for security represents “significant progress,” according to Russian news agencies.

But those statements were followed by attacks.

Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv region military administration, said Russian shells targeted residential areas and civilian infrastructure in the Bucha, Brovary and Vyshhorod regions around the capital.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military also targeted fuel depots in two towns in central Ukraine with air-launched long-range cruise missiles. Russian forces hit a Ukrainian special forces headquarters in the southern Mykolaiv region, he said, and two ammunition depots in the Donetsk region, in the Donbas.

In southern Ukraine, a Russian missile destroyed a fuel depot in Dnipro, the country’s fourth-largest city, regional officials said.

The U.S. said Russia had begun to reposition less than 20% of its troops that had been arrayed around Kyiv. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said troops from there and some other zones began moving mostly to the north, and some went into neighboring Belarus. Kirby said it appeared Russia planned to resupply them and send them back into Ukraine, but it is not clear where.

The Ukrainian military said some Russian airborne units were believed to have withdrawn into Belarus.

Top Russian military officials say their main goal now is the “liberation” of the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Some analysts have suggested that the focus on the Donbas and the pledge to de-escalate may merely be an effort to put a positive spin on reality since Moscow’s ground forces have become bogged down and taken heavy losses.

The Russians also are expected to try to blockade Chernihiv.

Russian forces have already been blockading Mariupol, a key port in the south, for weeks. The city has seen some of the worst devastation of the war and many attempts to implement safe evacuation corridors have collapsed. Ukraine accused Russian forces last week of seizing bus drivers and rescue workers headed to Mariupol.

The Russian military said it committed to a localized cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia from Thursday morning.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that Ukraine was sending out 45 buses to collect people. She said the International Committee of the Red Cross was acting as an intermediary.

Similar evacuation efforts have been planned before and collapsed amid recriminations over fighting along the route.

Civilians who have managed to leave the city have typically done so using private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles left in Mariupol has dwindled and fuel stocks are low.

Russia has also operated its own evacuations from territory it has captured in Mariupol. Ukraine alleges Russia is sending its citizens to “filtration camps” in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine and then forcibly taking people to Russia.

The U.N. is looking into those allegations.

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Taiwan Studying Ukraine War Tactics, Discussing With US

Taiwan’s defense ministry has set up a working group to study the tactics of the war in Ukraine, including how the country has been able to hold out against Russia, and has been discussing this with the United States, its minister said Thursday.

Taiwan, claimed by China as its own territory, has raised its alert level since the Russian invasion, wary of Beijing possibly making a similar move on the island, though it has reported no signs this is about to happen.

The possible impact of the war on China’s military thinking on Taiwan, and how China could attack the island, has been widely debated in official circles in Taipei.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of parliament, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said they had had “contact” with foreign countries to talk about how the war was being fought, and had set up their own working group to study it.

Topics Taiwan is following include Russia’s poor military performance and Ukraine’s resistance, he said.

“It is not only discussed in exchange meetings between the United States and Taiwan, but also discussed with other countries that have regular contacts with Taiwan,” Chiu added, without giving details.

Taiwan’s team on Ukraine includes academics from the National Defence University, he said.

“However, we will not make remarks rashly, but through internal discussions which are important, to get results that are helpful for building armaments and preparing for war.”

While Taiwanese officials have seen many parallels in the Ukraine war and their own situation, including having their own giant neighbor with territorial ambitions, they have also pointed to major differences.

Taiwan has talked, for example, of the “natural barrier” of the Taiwan Strait which would make China putting troops on the ground much more difficult than Russia just crossing over its land border with Ukraine.

Taiwan also has a large and well-equipped air force, and is developing its own formidable missile strike capability.

China has been stepping up its military pressure against Taiwan over the past two years or so.

Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims, and says only the island’s people can decide their future.

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Rights Group, War Victims Welcome Trial of Darfur Militia Leader

Years after atrocities took place in Sudan’s Darfur region, one of the key suspected perpetrators is about to face trial.

Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, goes on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague on April 5.

An arrest warrant was issued by the ICC for the paramilitary leader in 2007. He faces 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in 2003 and 2004. He surrendered in 2020 and was brought to The Hague, which confirmed his indictment the following year.

Kushayb has denied the charges and unsuccessfully challenged the court’s jurisdiction.

The ICC says Kushayb was one of the most senior leaders in the tribal hierarchy in the Wadi Salih locality and member of the Popular Defense Forces, a paramilitary group. He allegedly commanded thousands of janjaweed militias from August 2003 until March 2004 under former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019.

Kushayb is alleged to have implemented the counterinsurgency strategy of the government of Sudan, resulting in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, according to the ICC.

Kushayb is accused of personally participating in some of the attacks against civilians between August 2003 and March 2004, when civilians were killed, raped and tortured, the ICC says.

On April 5, ICC spokesperson Fadi El Abdallah told VOA, “The chamber will hear the prosecution’s opening statement first, followed by a short, unsworn statement by the accused and a short remark presented by the representative of victims.”

The first prosecution witness and experts will testify on April 6, he added.

Elise Keppler, an official with the Human Rights Watch International Justice Program, underscores the trial’s significance.

“It’s the first time that a leader is being held to account for massive crimes committed in Darfur,” Keppler told South Sudan in Focus. “This is a rare opportunity for accountability, a first crucial opportunity.”

Keppler said she hopes the trial will be the beginning of achieving justice in Sudan for victims as well as the perpetrators.

“This trial shows that even though it can be incredibly slow going for accountability to advance, it can and does happen.” And she warned that “would-be-perpetrators should take note that this person, Ali Kushayb, is being held to account.”

The delay in trying Kushayb and other accused individuals in Sudan is mainly because of former President Bashir’s refusal to cooperate with the court, Keppler said. She pointed out that Bashir also is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Darfur.

Adam Rijal, a spokesperson for internally displaced persons in Darfur says war victims are excited that Kushayb is finally held to account.

“This is a triumph for all the victims, and it shows that their patience all these years, in the face of continued crimes committed against them, will be rewarded with justice,” Rijal said. 

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