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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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Germany jails Islamic State member for life over role in Yazidi genocide

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November 30, 2021

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A German court on Tuesday jailed a former Islamic State militant for life after convicting him of involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity over mass killings of minority Yazidis by IS in Syria and Iraq.

It was the first genocide verdict against a member of Islamic State, an offshoot of al Qaeda that seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 before being ousted by U.S.-backed counter-offensives, losing its last territorial redoubt in 2019.

The court in Frankfurt found Taha al-Jumailly, 29, an Iraqi national, guilty of involvement in the slaughter of more than 3,000 Yazidis and enslavement of 7,000 women and girls by IS jihadists in 2014-15.

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This, the court ruled, included the murder of a five-year-old girl the defendant had enslaved and chained to a window, leaving her to die in scorching heat.

Al-Jumailly, who entered the court on Tuesday covering his face with a file folder, was arrested in Greece in 2019 and extradited to Germany where relatives of slain Yazidis acted as plaintiffs supporting the prosecution.

The defendant’s German wife, identified only as Jennifer W., was used as a prosecution witness at the trial. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month for involvement in the enslavement of the Yazidi girl and her mother.

The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority in eastern Syria and northwest Iraq that Islamic State viewed as supposed devil worshippers for their faith that combines Zoroastrian, Christian, Manichean, Jewish and Muslim beliefs.

Islamic State’s depredations also displaced most of the 550,000-strong Yazidi community.

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(Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’

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November 30, 2021

By Timour Azhari and Maha El Dahan

MAARAB, Lebanon (Reuters) – One of Lebanon’s main Christian politicians accused foe Hezbollah and its allies of working to postpone a parliamentary election set for March over fears of electoral losses, warning such a move would condemn Lebanon to a “slow death”.

Western donors that Lebanon is relying on to stem its financial implosion have said the vote must go ahead. Politicians from all sides, including Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, have repeatedly said it should happen otherwise the country’s standing would be dealt a further blow.

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But Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces and an ally of Saudi Arabia, pointed the finger at Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay it “because they are near certain that they will lose their parliamentary majority”.

Aoun said this month he would not sign authorisation for the vote, approved by parliament, to be held on March 27 as the date was too early.

Asked whether a postponement would lead to more fighting after clashes last month between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, Geagea, said: “Not fighting, but to more slow death.”

“With the current way things are going, state institutions – and so the state – is dissolving day by day,” he told Reuters at his residence in the mountains overlooking the coastal town of Jounieh.

Lebanon has no reliable opinion polling but should the election take place, Geagea’s party is widely expected to make gains, with the Free Patriotic Movement expected to lose seats, potentially robbing Hezbollah of its majority.

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Without an election to shake up parliament “you will see more of the same”, Geagea said. The United Nations says the economic meltdown has left nearly 80% of people in poverty.

Lebanon’s government, formed from most major political parties in September following a 13-month period of political paralysis, has already not convened in nearly 50 days amid a push by Hezbollah and its allies to remove the judge investigating the deadly August 2020 Beirut port blast.

Adding to the economic peril, Lebanon is facing a blast of Gulf Arab anger after a prominent broadcaster-turned-minister levelled blunt criticism at Saudi Arabia, in a row that has further strained Beirut’s ties with once generous benefactors.

Geagea, who maintained close contact to the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, said Hezbollah’s increasing influence was the main problem behind the rift that is harmful to Lebanon’s economy.

“We see Saudi and the Gulf as economic lungs for Lebanon,” he said.

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STREET CLASHES

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces is the second largest Christian party in parliament. It has stayed out of the cabinet since a popular uprising against the sectarian elite in 2019.

But the group was thrust back into the headlines when tensions over the probe erupted into the worst street violence in more than a decade last month, reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

Seven people, all followers of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, were killed.

Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of ambushing its supporters at the protest. Geagea confirmed supporters of his party, along with others, were involved in the clashes, but denied the move was pre-meditated and blamed Hezbollah for entering Beirut’s mostly Christian Ain al-Remmaneh neighbourhood, a strong support base for the Lebanese Forces.

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During Lebanon’s civil war, the Lebanese Forces, under Geagea, was a right-wing militia that controlled swathes of territory including eastern Beirut.

Following October’s clashes, Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused it of seeking to start a sectarian conflict and warned Hezbollah had 100,000 fighters at his disposal.

Geagea denied Nasrallah’s allegation that the Lebanese Forces had 15,000 fighters, saying the party had 35,000 members of whom only some had personal arms and perhaps more than 10,000 – “the whole old generation” – had military training.

Geagea said the Lebanese Forces did not seek a physical confrontation with Hezbollah and were not concerned about the breakout of sectarian violence due to the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining civil peace.

However, he said he had limited his movement and was not leaving his mountain residence in Maarab due to security threats, without giving further details.

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(Reporting By Timour Azhari and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Attack on Ukraine would be costly, NATO warns Moscow

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November 30, 2021

By Humeyra Pamuk and Sabine Siebold

RIGA (Reuters) – Russia would pay a high price for any new military aggression against Ukraine, NATO and the United States warned on Tuesday as the Western military alliance met to discuss Moscow’s intentions for massing troops on the border of the former Soviet republic.

The West has already shown that it can wield economic, financial and political sanctions against Moscow, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of talks of the alliance’s foreign ministers in the Latvian capital Riga.

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“There will be a high price to pay for Russia if they once again use force against the independence of the nation, Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to brief his 29 NATO counterparts on Washington’s intelligence on what is going on at the alliance’s eastern flank and in Ukraine, which is not a member.

“Any escalatory actions by Russia would be a great concern to the United States… and any renewed aggression would trigger serious consequences,” he said at a news conference before the meeting.

“We will be consulting closely with NATO allies and partners in the days ahead… about whether there are other steps that we should take as an alliance to strengthen our defences, strengthen our resilience, strengthen our capacity.”

Kyiv’s aspirations for integration with the West have triggered a standoff with Moscow.

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‘MALIGN ACTIVITY’

The Kremlin annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed rebels fighting government troops in the east of the country. That conflict has killed 14,000 people, according to Kyiv, and is still simmering.

Two Russian troop build-ups this year on Ukraine’s borders have alarmed the West. In May, Russian troops there numbered 100,000, the largest since its takeover of Crimea, Western officials say.

Moscow has dismissed as inflammatory Ukraine’s suggestions that it is preparing for an attack, said it does not threaten anyone and defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it wishes.

Britain and Germany echoed the NATO warnings.

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“We will stand with our fellow democracies against Russia’s malign activity,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “NATO’s support for Ukraine is unbroken… Russia would have to pay a high price for any sort of aggression.”

Adding to Western concerns, Belarus on Monday announced joint military drills with Russia on its border with Ukraine. While also a former Soviet republic, Minsk is an ally of Moscow.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom the West accuses of seeking to divide the European Union by sending Middle Eastern migrants to the border of NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, warned Minsk would not sit on the sidelines in case of war.

“It is clear whose side Belarus will be on,” he said, referring to Moscow, whose financial and political backing helped him weather mass public protests in August 2020.

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(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott; Editing by Nick Macfie and Andrew Cawthorne)

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