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Lebanese government in ‘fantasy land’ amid crisis, U.N. envoy says

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November 12, 2021

By Timour Azhari

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese government officials have no sense of urgency and are not taking responsibility for an economic crisis that has “brutally impoverished” the population, an independent United Nations envoy told Reuters in an interview.

“I’m very struck by the fact that this is a state that, if it is not failed yet, is failing and that the needs of the population are still not addressed,” Olivier De Schutter, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said at the end of a two-week mission studying poverty in Lebanon.

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“They are in a fantasy land,” De Schutter said. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of the country.”

De Schutter met with top officials including nine ministers, the prime minister and parliament speaker during his visit.

An official source at Prime Minister’s Najib Mikati’s office did not comment on his view but pointed to the fact that Mikati had a productive meeting this week with another U.N. official, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley.

The United Nations says nearly three-quarters of the formerly middle-income nation’s population now suffer from poverty, which has increased during an economic crisis rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Banks imposed informal controls on withdrawals and the currency lost more than 90% of its value since 2019 in what the World Bank has labelled a “deliberate depression” and one of one of the worst financial crashes in the world since 1850.

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“This is a huge country-wide loss of wealth that is almost unprecedented,” De Schutter said, noting losses in Lebanon’s banking sector, estimated in a 2020 government plan at around $83 billion, should be borne by bank shareholders and large depositors, not average people.

Western nations have offered aid in return for reforms, but Lebanon was without a permanent government for 13 months in the wake of the deadly August 2020 Beirut blast, and a new cabinet formed in September has not met in a month amid a political row.

De Schutter said he would recommend the immediate implementation of social protection programmes held up for months, an increase to the minimum wage and a wealth tax to combat world-leading inequality rates.

His final report will be published in early 2022.

De Schutter said that, while Pope John Paul II once referred to Lebanon as a “message” of sectarian coexistence, it had since become “a warning for the world” on the outcomes of “a very unhealthy alliance between very wealthy businessmen and political elites”.

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(Reporting by Timour Azhari; Editing by Peter Graff)

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China top representative in Macau to advise govt on national security-state media

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December 3, 2021

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China’s top representative in the semiautonomous gambling hub of Macau will begin advising the former Portuguese colony’s government on national security matters, state news agency Xinhua reported on Friday.

The move highlights increased scrutiny from Beijing over Macau affairs after the central government declared outflows of Chinese gambling-related funds into Macau and other gaming hubs a national security risk.

Last week Macau authorities arrested Alvin Chau https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/gambling-group-suncitys-shares-set-rise-61-after-arrested-chairman-resigns-2021-12-02, the founder of Macau’s biggest junket operator, which brings in high rollers to play at casinos, along with 10 others, for allegedly using Macau as a base for an illegal “live web betting platform.”

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A warrant for Chau’s arrest has also been issued by the mainland Chinese city of Wenzhou, accusing him of forming an extensive junket agent network that helps citizens engage in gambling activities and of setting up a company that helps gamblers make cross-border fund transfers.

The move was seen as a warning that Macau and mainland Chinese authorities were adopting a zero-tolerance approach to the promotion of gambling in mainland China where it is illegal.

Xinhua said Macau asked Beijing to appoint a national security affairs adviser in the city and that Beijing tasked the head of its Liaison Office Fu Ziying to “supervise, guide, coordinate, and support” the government on the matter.

Beijing will also appoint three national security technical advisers from within the Liaison Office, which is Beijing’s main representative institution in Macau.

(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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S.Korea makes vaccine pass mandatory for many more venues as Omicron fears rise

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December 3, 2021

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea announced on Friday that people visiting restaurants and cinemas and other public spaces will have to show vaccine passes, amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

The government also re-imposed limits on private gatherings, which had been recently relaxed, as the country posted record numbers of new cases this week.

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Desperate to fend off the Omicron variant, authorities halted quarantine exemptions on Thursday for fully vaccinated inbound travellers and made a 10-day quarantine mandatory.

From next Monday, people visiting 14 designated public spaces, including hospitality and entertainment venues, will have to show their vaccines passes, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a coronavirus response meeting, setting out the plan to reduce the risk of community spread. The public will have a grace period of a week to get used to the new rules.

While people have been required to show their vaccine pass at high-risk venues such as gyms, saunas and bars, it is the first time that the requirement has been extended to restaurants and cafes.

From February, anyone aged 12 years or older will have to show a vaccination pass. The government decided to lower the exemption age, currently set at 17 years, to encourage teenagers to get vaccinated as the under-18 age group accounts for 20% of all infections, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told a briefing.

The limit on private gatherings was cut to six people in the greater Seoul area, and eight outside, from the current limit of 10 in Seoul and 12 outside, Kwon said.

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South Korea has so far confirmed a total of five Omicron cases after a fully vaccinated couple tested positive for the variant after arriving last week from Nigeria. The patients are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms such as headache, low-grade fever, dizziness and sore throat, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

KDCA reported 4,944 COVID-19 cases for Thursday, a slight decline from record high 5,266 cases on Wednesday. It has reported a total of 462,555, with 3,739 deaths overall.

South Korea has fully vaccinated 91.6% of its adult population aged 18 and over, yet the booster dose uptake remains at 8.1%.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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U.S. House to consider bill to clamp down on products from China’s Xinjiang

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December 3, 2021

By Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. House of Representatives is set to consider a bill as soon as next week that would ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region over concerns about forced labor, Representative Jim McGovern, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters on Thursday.

“Next week is an important week for human rights,” McGovern said. “… We think it’s important to move some China legislation, hopefully much of it focused on human rights. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act we want to see that get over the finish line in some form.”

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President Joe Biden is hosting a summit of democracies next week, seen as an effort to push back against China’s growing influence.

Republicans and Democrats have been arguing over the Uyghur legislation for months. Most recently, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been demanding that the measure be included as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, delaying the Senate’s consideration of the massive annual bill setting policy for the Pentagon.

Rubio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether House passage of McGovern’s bill would change his stance on the defense bill.

If the Uyghur measure becomes law, it would create a “rebuttable presumption” that all goods from Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has set up a vast network of detention camps for Uyghurs and other Muslim groups, were made with forced labor.

China denies abuses in Xinjiang, which supplies much of the world’s materials for solar panels, but the U.S. government and many rights groups say Beijing is carrying out genocide there.

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Republicans have accused Biden’s Democrats of slow-walking the legislation because it would complicate the president’s renewable energy agenda. Democrats deny that.

“I just want to see a strong, a much stronger, approach when it comes to forced labor in Xinjiang,” Democratic Representative Dan Kildee told Reuters in a telephone interview, arguing that domestic production of solar panels could be ramped up.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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