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Biden’s democracy summit: Problematic invite list casts shadow on impact

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November 7, 2021

By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden is getting ready to deliver on a key campaign promise by convening a Summit for Democracy: a first-of-its kind gathering of more than 100 countries to help stop democratic backsliding and erosion of rights and freedoms worldwide.

But rights advocates are questioning whether the virtual event can push those world leaders who are invited, some accused of harboring authoritarian tendencies, to take meaningful action.

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“If the summit is to be anything more than just another meeting, each attendee, including the United States, will need to follow through on meaningful commitments on democracy and rights issues in the year ahead,” said Annie Boyajian, vice president for policy and advocacy at Freedom House, a non-profit group specializing in human rights and democracy.

Administration officials say the December event is just the “launch” of a longer conversation about democracy and that countries will need to fulfill the reforms they pledged to be invited to the follow-up summit planned next year.

The event – to be held on Dec. 9 and 10 – is a test of Biden’s longstanding claim, announced in his first foreign policy address as president in February, that the United States would return to global leadership under his tenure to face down authoritarian forces led by China and Russia.

A tentative invite list first reported by Politico and confirmed by a source familiar with the matter shows that the event will bring together mature democracies such as France and Sweden but also countries including Philippines and Poland, where activists say democracy is under threat. In Asia, some U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea were invited, while others like Thailand and Vietnam were not.

Representation from the Middle East was slim with Israel and Iraq among the few countries invited and notable U.S. allies such as Egypt and NATO partner Turkey absent from the list.

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Rights groups praise Biden’s pledge to reinstate the promotion of rights and freedoms as a foreign policy priority, after the disinterested approach of his predecessor Donald Trump, who openly praised strongmen such as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

They also say the invitation to countries with problematic human rights records raises doubts about the credibility of the event, but at the same time illustrates the administration’s struggle to balance wider U.S. national security interests, such as countering a rising China, with higher ideals.

“Clearly, strategic considerations about countering China are at play in inviting very troubled, backsliding democracies like India and the Philippines that are in China’s neighborhood,” said Amy Hawthorne, research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, an advocacy group.

“The same might be true for inviting deeply flawed democracy Iraq, the neighbor of U.S. adversary, the Iranian theocracy,” she added.

‘MAKE CHOICES’

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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has in the past stated he does not “care about human rights”, and Indian President Narendra Modi, who advocacy group Freedom House said is driving India toward authoritarianism, will be among those discussing with Biden how to help democracy flourish globally.

An official at the Philippines’ foreign ministry confirmed Duterte was invited to the online forum and said Washington had imposed “absolutely no conditions” on his attendance. The country’s government was still considering whether to participate, the official said.

A senior U.S. official involved in the planning of the summit told Reuters that invites were sent to countries with different experiences of democracy from all regions of the world. “This was not about endorsing, ‘You’re a democracy, you are not a democracy.’ That is not the process we went through,” the official said.

Biden administration officials say they had to “make choices” to ensure regional diversity and broad participation.

Human rights groups said that with only weeks until the summit it was unclear how Washington would monitor implementation of commitments and hold the leaders who participate to their word.

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‘A PLACE OF HUMILITY’

Poland, which is locked in a feud with the European Union over what Brussels says is democratic backsliding, was invited, but officials there took umbrage at an earlier message from Washington that appeared to place conditions on the invitation, according to a Polish government source.

The earlier email contained a list of suggested actions that would demonstrate Poland’s commitment to freedom and democracy, including respect for LGBTQI rights – a major sore point in Washington’s dealings with Poland’s right-wing government that has moved to restrict gay rights.

U.S. officials said they did not dictate any conditions but called on invited countries to come forward with commitments to take action.

“The idea has never been to prescribe or to be prescriptive,” said one of the officials.

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The United States would also make its own commitments, the official added, as Washington faces skepticism about the health of its own democracy. After losing the November 2020 election to Biden, Trump’s false claims of fraud paved the way for his supporters’ Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, an unprecedented episode that stunned foreign governments and armed authoritarian leaders with cause to question the robustness of American democracy.

“In all of our diplomatic communications around the summit, we are starting from a place of humility and recognizing that no democracy, including of course the United States, is perfect,” said a second administration official.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska in Warshaw and Neil Jerome Morales in Manila; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis)

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Explainer-What remains of the Iran nuclear deal as talks resume?

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November 28, 2021

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are to resume in Vienna on Monday, with Iran’s atomic advances raising doubt https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/low-expectations-nuclear-talks-iran-creates-facts-grounds-2021-11-28 as to whether a breakthrough can be made to bring Tehran and the United States back into full compliance with the accord.

Since the United States under then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has breached many of its deal’s restrictions designed to lengthen the time it would need to generate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb to at least a year from 2-3 months – the so-called “breakout time”.

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Iran says it only wants to enrich uranium for civil uses. But many suspect it is at least seeking to gain leverage in the indirect talks with the United States by getting closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

How close is Iran to being able to do so, and what remains of the deal’s restrictions?

BREAKOUT TIME

Experts generally put breakout time at around three to six weeks but say weaponisation would take longer – often roughly two years. Israel’s finance minister recently said https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-minister-says-iran-could-have-nuclear-arms-within-5-years-2021-11-23 Iran could have nuclear weapons within five years.

ENRICHMENT

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The deal restricts the purity to which Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67%, far below the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade or the 20% Iran reached before the deal. Iran is now enriching to various levels, the highest being around 60%.

The deal also says Iran can only produce, or accumulate, enriched uranium with just over 5,000 of its least efficient, first-generation centrifuges at one facility: the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz.

The deal lets Iran enrich for research, without accumulating enriched uranium, with small numbers of advanced centrifuges, which are often at least twice as efficient as the IR-1.

Iran is now refining uranium with hundreds of advanced centrifuges both at the FEP and the above-ground Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz.

It is also enriching with more than 1,000 IR-1s at Fordow, a plant buried inside a mountain, and plans to do the same with more than 100 advanced centrifuges already installed there.

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URANIUM STOCKPILE

The International Atomic Energy Agency, policing Iranian nuclear activities, estimated this month https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/21/11/gov2021-51.pdf that Tehran’s stock of enriched uranium is just under 2.5 tonnes, more than 12 times the 202.8-kg (446-pound) limit imposed by the deal, but less than the more than five tonnes it had before the deal.

That said, it is now enriching to a higher level and has around 17.7 kg of uranium enriched to up to 60%. It takes around 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium to make one nuclear bomb.

INSPECTIONS AND MONITORING

The deal made Iran implement the IAEA’s so-called Additional Protocol, which allows for snap inspections of undeclared sites. It also expanded IAEA monitoring by cameras and other devices beyond the core activities and inspections covered by Iran’s long-standing Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

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Iran has stopped implementing the Additional Protocol and is allowing the extra monitoring to continue only in a black-box-type arrangement https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-iaea-deal-idUSKBN2AN1UU, whereby the data from cameras and other devices is collected and stored but the IAEA does not have access to it, at least for the time being.

The one exception https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iaea-chief-says-negotiations-iran-proved-inconclusive-2021-11-24 to the continued monitoring is a centrifuge-parts workshop at the TESA Karaj complex, which was hit by apparent sabotage in June that destroyed one of four IAEA cameras there, after which Iran removed all of them. Iran has not let the IAEA re-install the cameras since.

POTENTIAL WEAPONISATION

Iran has produced uranium metal, both enriched to 20% and not enriched. This alarms Western powers because making uranium metal is a pivotal step towards producing bombs and no country has done it without eventually developing nuclear weapons.

Iran says it is working on reactor fuel.

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(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Former Cambodian premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh dies at 77

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November 28, 2021

By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) -Cambodian former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the current king’s half-brother, who spent his later years in the political shadow of his one-time rival Prime Minister Hun Sen, has died in France. He was 77.

The prince, whose royalist political party won elections in 1993, was ousted in a 1997 coup by coalition partner Hun Sen, who remains Cambodia’s authoritarian leader.

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Hun Sen said in a statement on Sunday that he and his wife were “heartbroken” at the news, calling Ranariddh “a dignitary, (a) member of the royal family who was patriotic to the nation, religion, the king”.

Ranariddh was the most political member of Cambodia’s royal family in recent decades, leading his Funcinpec party in elections for years after he was ousted.

But in 2017, he dismayed https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cambodia-politics-prince-idUSKBN1CK020 Cambodia’s weakened opposition by backing the dissolution of another party whose leader was jailed on treason charges. Hun Sen has since effectively sidelined all opposition and now presides over a one-party parliament.

Explaining his position, Ranariddh told Reuters that year: “… Hun Sen, you want or you don’t want, you like him or you don’t like him, he brings about this national unity.”

His younger half-brother, King Norodom Sihamoni, has occupied the Cambodian throne since the abdication of their father, King Norodom Sihanouk https://www.reuters.com/article/oukwd-uk-cambodia-sihanouk-idAFBRE89D0K120121015, in 2004. Sihanouk died aged 89 in 2012 in Beijing.

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Lao Mong Hay, a veteran Cambodian analyst, said Ranariddh had lacked the political savvy of his father.

“He was soon outwitted and overthrown by his far more talented rival,” Lao Mong Hay said, citing a Cambodian proverb that 10 learned persons are less than one talented person. “So Norodom Ranariddh happened to be one of those 10.”

Ranariddh’s career reflected the way Hun Sen has neutralized rivals since defecting from the Khmer Rouge “killing fields” regime in the late 1970s to help drive it from power.

Hun Sen led the Vietnam-backed Communist government in Phnom Penh for more than a decade while the Khmer Rouge waged a guerrilla insurgency.

The royal family lived in exile during this time, headed by former absolute ruler Sihanouk, who had led Cambodia to independence from France and abdicated a first time to enter democratic politics and become prime minister before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

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Ranariddh was working as a French law lecturer when his father called him to contest the 1993 elections organised by the United Nations as part of a peace process.

With royalist sentiment strong, Ranariddh won the elections. But when Hun Sen threatened a return to war, a political deal resulted in a coalition government making Ranariddh “first prime minister”, Hun Sen “second prime minister” and returning King Sihanouk to the throne as constitutional monarch.

The uneasy coalition lasted four years before Ranariddh was overthrown by forces loyal to Hun Sen and driven into exile.

After international pressure, Ranariddh was allowed to return and contest elections a year later, but he never again came close to winning and entered into on-and-off alliances with Hun Sen.

(Writing by Kay JohnsonEditing by Frances Kerry, Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans)

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Thousands protest against Czech COVID measures as hospitals fill

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November 28, 2021

PRAGUE (Reuters) – Several thousand people protested in Prague against anti-coronavirus restrictions on Sunday as many Czech hospitals halted non-urgent procedures in the face of one of the world’s fastest rates of new infections.

Gathered in a park overlooking the Czech capital’s centre, protesters waved national flags and carried signs with slogans such as: “Get vaccinated? Over your dead bodies”.

The outgoing government toughened measures on Thursday, including a ban on Christmas markets, which was one of the main themes at Sunday’s rally.

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“I am here to fight for freedom. I am here because I don’t agree with what is happening today,” Jiri Hulec told Reuters.

Czech hospitals, including the largest one, Prague’s Motol, have ceased planned operations and limited other care in the past days as the number of patients with COVID-19 has doubled to around 6,000 over the past three weeks.

Newly-appointed Prime Minister Petr Fiala earlier called on people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others from serious conditions if infected.

Only 58.5% of Czechs are vaccinated against coronavirus, compared to a European Union average of 65.8%, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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