Achieving a world where all people have equal access to opportunities is a goal worth fighting for, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday in a speech calling for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities in society, including in COVID-19 response and recovery.
The UN chief was addressing countries that are party to the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which he stressed can only be fully implemented by tackling the obstacles, injustices and discrimination that this population experiences, according to the UN's news service.
“Realizing the rights of persons with disabilities is crucial to fulfilling the core promise of the 2030 Agenda: to leave no one behind,” he said, referring to the global action plan to bring about a more just and sustainable world.
“In all our actions, our goal is clear: a world in which all persons can enjoy equal opportunities, participate in decision-making and truly benefit from economic, social, political and cultural life. That is a goal worth fighting for.”
The 13th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention (COSP13) is taking place ahead of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, commemorated annually on 3 December.
Like most UN events this year, it is being held in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, with participants meeting both in person and online.
The pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities affecting the world’s one billion persons with disabilities, the Secretary-General said. Even under normal circumstances they were already less likely to access education, healthcare and jobs, or to be included in their communities.
A long way to go
The Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities echoed this assessment. Danlami Umaru Basharu was concerned that structural barriers, exclusion and discrimination have worsened during the crisis.
“While I celebrate that there are now 182 parties to the Convention, the pandemic has made evident that there is still a long way to go in fully understanding the human rights model of disability enshrined in the Convention, and therefore in fully implementing its provisions,” he said in a video message.
In May, the Secretary-General issued a policy brief highlighting the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on persons with disabilities.
He has called for pandemic response and recovery to be more disability inclusive, starting with recognizing and protecting the human rights of persons with disabilities.
“We must also ensure that the vision and aspirations of persons with disabilities are included and accounted for in a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world,” he said.
The Secretary-General further emphasized that securing the rights of persons with disabilities is necessary for upholding the values and principles that underlie the UN.
French activists fear that a proposed new security law will deprive them of a potent weapon against abuse — cellphone videos of police activity — threatening their efforts to document possible cases of police brutality, especially in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is pushing a new security bill that makes it illegal to publish images of police officers with intent to cause them harm, amid other measures. Critics fear the new law could hurt press freedoms and make it more difficult for all citizens to report on police brutality.
“I was lucky enough to have videos that protect me,” said Michel Zecler, a Black music producer who was beaten up recently by several French police officers. Videos first published Thursday by French website Loopsider have been seen by over 14 million viewers, resulting in widespread outrage over police actions.
Two of the officers are in jail while they are investigated while two others, also under investigation, are out on bail.
The draft bill, still being debated in parliament, has prompted protests across the country called by press freedom advocates and civil rights campaigners. Tens of thousands of people marched Saturday in Paris to reject the measure, including families and friends of people killed by police.
“For decades, descendants of post-colonial immigration and residents in populous neighborhoods have denounced police brutality,” Sihame Assbague, an anti-racism activist, told The Associated Press.
Videos by the public have helped to show a wider audience that there is a “systemic problem with French police forces, who are abusing, punching, beating, mutilating, killing,” she said.
Activists say the bill may have an even greater impact on people other than journalists, especially those of immigrant origin living in neighborhoods where relationships with the police have long been tense. Images posted online have been key to denouncing cases of officers’ misconduct and racism in recent years, they argue.
Assbague expressed fears that, under the proposed law, those who post videos of police abuses online may be put on trial, where they would face up to a year in jail and a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine.
“I tend to believe that a young Arab man from a poor suburb who posts a video of police brutality in his neighborhood will be more at risk of being found guilty than a journalist who did a video during a protest,” she said.
Amal Bentounsi’s brother, Amine, was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in 2012. The officer was sentenced to a five-year suspended prison sentence. Along with other families of victims, in March she launched a mobile phone app called Emergency-Police Violence to record abuses and bring cases to court.
“Some police officers already have a sense of impunity. ... The only solution now is to make videos,” she told the AP. The app has been downloaded more than 50,000 times.
“If we want to improve public confidence in the police, it does not go through hiding the truth,” she added.
The proposed law is partly a response to demands from police unions, who say it will provide greater protection for officers.
Abdoulaye Kante, a Black police officer with 20 years of experience in Paris and its suburbs, is both a supporter of the proposed law and strongly condemns police brutality and violence against officers.
“What people don’t understand is that some individuals are using videos to put the faces of our (police) colleagues on social media so that they are identified, so that they are threatened or to incite hatred,” he said.
“The law doesn’t ban journalists or citizens from filming police in action ... It bans these images from being used to harm, physically or psychologically,” he argued. “The lives of officers are important.”
A “tiny fraction of the population feeds rage and hatred” against police, Jean-Michel Fauvergue, a former head of elite police forces and a lawmaker in Macron’s party who co-authored the bill, said in the National Assembly. “We need to find a solution.”
Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has acknowledged that “the intent (to harm) is something that is difficult to define.”
In an effort to quell criticism, lawmakers from Macron’s party announced Monday they would rewrite the criticized article of the bill, which will be debated by the Senate early next year.
Activists consider the draft law just the latest of several security measures to extend police powers at the expense of civil liberties. A statement signed by over 30 groups of families and friends of victims of police abuses said since 2005, “all security laws adopted have constantly expanded the legal field allowing police impunity.”
Riots in 2005 exposed France’s long-running problems between police and youths in public housing projects with large immigrant populations.
In recent years, numerous security laws have been passed following attacks by extremists.
Critics noted a hardening of police tactics during protests or while arresting individuals. Hundreds of complaints have been filed against officers during the yellow vest movement against economic injustice, which erupted in 2018 and saw weekends of violent clashes.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said out of 3 million police operations per year in France, some 9,500 end up on a government website that denounces abuses, which represents 0.3%.
France’s human rights ombudsman, Claire Hedon, is among the most prominent critics of the proposed law, which she said involves “significant risks of undermining fundamental rights.”
“Our democracy is hit when the population does not trust its police anymore,” she told the National Assembly.
The fugitive leader of Ethiopia’s defiant Tigray region on Monday called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “stop the madness” and withdraw troops from the region as he asserted that fighting continues “on every front” two days after Abiy declared victory.
Debretsion Gebremichael, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said he remains near the Tigray capital, Mekele, which the Ethiopian army on Saturday said it now controlled. Far from accepting Abiy’s declaration of victory, the Tigray leader asserted that “we are sure we’ll win.”
He also accused the Ethiopian forces of carrying out a “genocidal campaign” against the Tigray people. With the Tigray region still cut off a month after the fighting began, no one knows how many people have been killed, and it’s difficult to verify the warring sides’ claims.
Each government regards the other as illegal after Abiy sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front after taking office in early 2018.
The fight is about self-determination of the region of around 6 million people, the Tigray leader said, and it “will continue until the invaders are out.” He asserted that his forces held an undetermined number of “captives” among the Ethiopian forces, including the pilot of a fighter jet that his side claims to have shot down over the weekend.
The Tigray leader also asserted that his forces still have several missiles and “we can use them whenever we want,” though he rejected a question about striking at the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saying the primary aim is to “clear Tigray from the invaders.” He again accused Abiy of collaborating with neighboring Eritrea in the offensive in Tigray, something the Ethiopian government has denied.
As for the idea of talks with the government, something Abiy has repeatedly rejected, the Tigray leader said that “depends on the content” and Ethiopian forces would first have to leave the region.
“Civilian casualties are so high,” he said, though denied having any estimate of the toll. He accused Ethiopian forces of “looting wherever they go.”
“The suffering is greater and greater every day,” he said, calling it collective punishment against the Tigray people for their belief in their leaders.
The fighting has threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and its neighbors.
Abiy in remarks to lawmakers on Monday asserted that “the defense force has not killed a single person in any city. No nation’s military could have shown better competency than us.” But one of his own cabinet ministers, Zadig Abraha, told the AP on Saturday that “we have kept the civilian casualty very low.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Abiy on Monday — the first known time since the fighting began — and reiterated the “grave concern regarding ongoing hostilities and the risks the conflict poses,” a spokesman said. Pompeo also “called for a complete end to the fighting and constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis” and for humanitarian access and protection of civilians, including refugees.
Hospitals and health centers in the Tigray region are running “dangerously low” on supplies to care for the wounded, the International Committee of the Red Cross has said. Food is also running low, the result of the region being cut off from outside aid.
In a rare report from inside Mekele, the ICRC also said a major hospital in northern Ethiopia, Ayder Referral Hospital, is lacking body bags and some 80% of its patients have trauma injuries.
Fears of a widespread humanitarian disaster are growing. The U.N. has been unable to access the Tigray region. Human rights groups and others worry about the atrocities that might emerge once transport and other links are restored.
Nearly 1 million people have been displaced, including about 44,000 who fled into Sudan. Camps in Tigray that are home to 96,000 Eritrean refugees have been in the line of fire.
“We need first and foremost access” to Tigray, U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi said Sunday, adding that his U.N. colleagues in Addis Ababa are in discussions with the government. Abiy’s government has promised a “humanitarian corridor” managed by itself, but the U.N. has stressed the importance of neutrality.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission on Monday urged the government to quickly restore basic services and humanitarian aid access to the Tigray region and allow access to independent investigations into “grave human rights violations.” It also expressed concern about profiling of ethnic Tigrayans.
As two Islamic State militants faced a judge in Virginia last month, Diane Foley listened from home through a muffled phone connection and strained to make out the voices of the men prosecutors say kidnapped her son before he was murdered.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh stand accused of belonging to an IS cell dubbed “the Beatles,” an incongruously lighthearted nickname for British citizens blamed for the jailing, torture and murder of Western hostages in Syria.
After geopolitical breakthroughs and stalemates, military actions in Syria and court fights in London, the Justice Department’s most significant terrorism prosecution in years was finally underway. For Foley, who months earlier had pleaded with Attorney General William Barr to pursue justice by forswearing the death penalty, the fact the case was proceeding at all felt miraculous.
“We’d met so many blocks over the years, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” Foley said. “I was in awe of it, really, and almost didn’t trust it — a bit incredulous. Is this really happening?”
The prosecution is a counterterrorism success in the waning weeks of the Trump administration. But it almost didn’t happen.
Interviews with 11 people connected to the case make clear the hurdles along the way, including a death penalty dispute that required two normally close allies, the U.S. and U.K., to navigate fundamental differences in criminal justice systems. In the end, the interviews show, grieving families reached a gradual consensus to take capital punishment off the table while a key commitment by Barr to do the same enabled the U.S. to obtain crucial evidence it needed.
At another time, the case might not have even been handled in civilian courts. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Republican-led Justice Department favored detaining foreign fighters at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for military tribunals. But that approach changed. Now federal prosecutors are pursuing the highest-profile terrorism case since trials over the Boston Marathon bombing and Benghazi attack, aiming to secure convictions and punishments that can keep the men, in their 30s, imprisoned for life.
“There was never a time when I thought we didn’t have any case,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security. But, “we didn’t want to bring them here unless we had really good charges, a really strong case, and ultimately expected a conviction that was going to result in a very significant prison sentence.”
The group of militants, called “the Beatles” by their captives because of their British accents, came to embody IS barbarism with the 2014 release of grisly propaganda videos depicting the beheadings of American hostages. The first showed James Foley, captured as a freelance journalist covering Syria’s civil war, kneeling in the desert in an orange jumpsuit beside a masked man in black brandishing a knife to his throat.
The beheadings were part of a reign of terror that officials say also involved waterboarding, mock executions and electric shocks. Elsheikh once videotaped the shooting of a Syrian hostage as Kotey directed hostages to watch while holding signs pleading for their release, prosecutors say.
The pair also coordinated ransom demands, the indictment says. An email to the Foleys tauntingly told them the U.S. government treated them “like worthless insects.”
An airstrike killed the group’s most notorious member, who had killed Foley and was known by the moniker of “Jihadi John.” Another was prosecuted in Turkey.
That left Kotey and Elsheikh, who were captured in Syria in 2018 by American-backed forces. Weeks later, they appeared unapologetic while speaking to The Associated Press at a Kurdish security center, denouncing the U.S. and Britain as hypocrites who wouldn’t give them a fair trial.
Inside the Justice Department, officials weighed whether the men should be tried in the U.K. or U.S. or even transferred to Guantanamo, which then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had called a “very fine place” even though prosecutions there have floundered, lagging behind the speedier justice of American courts.
U.S. officials initially leaned toward a U.K. prosecution. British authorities had accumulated compelling evidence during their own investigation and U.S. policy encouraged other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens who’d joined IS.
Yet the U.K., which had stripped the men of their British citizenship, resisted doing the case in part over concerns about the ability to get convictions and significant prison sentences in British courts.
Once that position became clear, officials coalesced around bringing the men to America, said State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales. But the British balked at sharing evidence with U.S. prosecutors without assurances they wouldn’t impose the death penalty, which was abolished in the U.K. That was an impediment for American officials, who say they considered Britain’s evidence vital in tracing the men’s travel and path of radicalization.
They decided they wouldn’t do the case without that evidence, Demers said.
The British later relented and agreed to share evidence without any assurances. But Elsheikh’s mother sued over the evidence transfer, delaying the case well over a year. Last March, a British court effectively blocked the evidence-sharing over the death penalty issue, a hurdle U.S. officials assumed might require additional litigation to overcome.
Despite the ruling, prosecutors pressed forward. G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office is handling the case, was among those arguing internally that prosecuting the defendants was more important than leaving the death penalty on the table.
“You certainly can make an argument, and maybe it’s not even a close call, that capital punishment would have been appropriate given the horrific nature of this crime,” Terwilliger said. But, “getting justice for the victims was paramount to me.”
The families, too, began uniting around the idea of removing the death penalty from consideration.
That had long been Diane Foley’s position. The most vocal of the group, she met regularly over the years with government officials and cultivated high-level Washington contacts like her hometown senator, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, with whom she co-authored a 2019 newspaper op-ed warning against “impunity for these monsters.”
Still, the budding consensus in recent months was notable because the families had not always shared the same perspective of the case.
The executions of Foley and two other hostages, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig, were documented in propaganda videos, the men’s fates apparent to the world. But the circumstances of the death of a fourth, Kayla Mueller, who prosecutors say was sexually abused by late IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were less established and her parents initially believed keeping the death penalty on the table could be leverage to get answers.
Mueller’s mother, Marsha, said in a text message that the couple had not wanted anyone to die but was eager for information about Kayla.
Ultimately, though, she concluded: “The other families who we care so deeply for wanted the men brought here and this seemed to be the only way they would come.”
Meanwhile, current and former FBI officials who were helping the families, including the head of the bureau’s hostage recovery cell, encouraged them to speak out in unison to prod the Trump administration toward prosecution. Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who’d partnered with Mueller’s parents to investigate Kayla’s death, made the case that waiving the death penalty was essential for cooperating with the U.K. and even customary in international terrorism cases like this one.
Other options were hardly optimal. A trial in Iraq, where the men had been held in U.S. military custody over the past year, could produce a human rights outcry creating empathy for the men. The proceedings could also result in their release, or potentially execution if they were convicted.
Concerned a U.S. prosecution might not happen at all, or that the men might be left in Iraq, the families accelerated their public advocacy. In July, all four signed onto an opinion piece in The Washington Post imploring the U.S. to prosecute the pair as a message that anyone who harms American citizens “will not escape.” That month, NBC News aired an interview with the men in which they admitted involvement in Mueller’s captivity.
When Foley met with Barr in 2019, he said he shared her desire for accountability. But she said he and other Justice Department officials were firm in their convictions that the death penalty, a punishment Barr had brought back after a 16-year federal government hiatus, was merited.
Last summer, though, as the families conveyed their wishes to remove death from consideration and as the case dragged on without obvious resolution, Barr was ready to break the logjam.
“I don’t know if it was the deciding factor or not, but I think it did help when we finally spoke up again and said, ‘Please. Please bring them to the U.S,‘” Foley said. “If you need that evidence and you need to waive the death penalty, please do it.’”
A senior Justice Department official prepared Foley for the news about to break, writing in an Aug. 14 email that once the U.S. message is delivered and becomes public, “we are sure it will generate a lot of attention and discussion — and that many will be interested to hear from all of you.”
That happened days later with the release of Barr’s letter to U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel. In it, he committed to forgo the death penalty but also issued an ultimatum: If the Justice Department received Britain’s evidence by Oct. 15, it would proceed with prosecution. If not, it would transfer the men to Iraqi custody for prosecution.
“That was a real option. It wasn’t posturing,” Demers said. “I didn’t know if the U.K. could do everything it needed to do in time to get us that evidence.”
The evidence came, resulting in a 24-page indictment with counts punishable by life imprisonment.
Justice Department prosecutors announced their case on Oct. 7 as the men were flown to Dulles International Airport and taken to jail, where because of the pandemic they faced a judge via video link. They have pleaded not guilty.
As Foley listened to court proceedings she once doubted would ever come, she couldn’t help but wonder if, under different circumstances, the men might have been friends with James, who years earlier had taught jail inmates.
But she also is gratified.
“To my last dying breath, I will do my best to bring some accountability and justice for the horror of the murders of these four Americans.”
President-elect Joe Biden on Monday announced his senior economic team, including his plans to nominate the first woman to head the Treasury Department as well as several liberal economists and policy specialists who established their credentials during the previous two Democratic administrations.
In a statement, Biden said he would nominate Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chair, to lead the Treasury Department, and former Clinton and Obama adviser Neera Tanden to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget. He also named Wally Adeyemo, a former Obama administration official and the first CEO of the former president’s nonprofit foundation, as his nominee for deputy treasury secretary. He also unveiled his White House economic team, consisting of economists Cecilia Rouse, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey.
Biden, who has placed a premium on diversity in his selection of Cabinet nominees and key advisers, is looking to notch a few firsts with his economic team selections. Yellen would be the first woman to lead the Treasury Department and Adeyemo the first Black deputy secretary. Tanden would be the first woman of color to lead OMB and Rouse the first woman of color to chair the Council of Economic Advisers.
“As we get to work to control the virus, this is the team that will deliver immediate economic relief for the American people during this economic crisis and help us build our economy back better than ever,” Biden said in a statement.
Yellen became Federal Reserve chair in 2014 when the economy was still recovering from the devastating Great Recession. In the late 1990s, she was President Bill Clinton’s top economic adviser during the Asian financial crisis. Under Biden she would lead the Treasury Department with the economy in the grip of a surging pandemic.
If confirmed, Yellen would become the first woman to lead the Treasury Department in its nearly 232-year history. She would inherit an economy with still-high unemployment, escalating threats to small businesses and signs that consumers are retrenching as the pandemic restricts or discourages spending.
Tanden, the president and CEO of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, has been tapped to serve as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. She was the director of domestic policy for the Obama-Biden presidential campaign, but she first made her mark in the Clinton orbit.
She served as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Before that, she served as legislative director in Clinton’s Senate office and deputy campaign manager and issues director for Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. Tanden was a senior policy adviser in the Bill Clinton administration.
If confirmed, she would be the first woman of color and the first South Asian woman to lead the OMB, the agency that oversees the federal budget.
But Senate Republicans are signaling they’ll oppose confirmation. Late Sunday a spokesman for GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tweeted that Tanden “stands zero chance of being confirmed.” And Josh Holmes, a political adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tweeted that confirmation was likely doomed. Republicans hold the edge in the current Senate, although next year’s majority won’t be decided until Jan. 5 runoffs in two races involving GOP incumbents in Georgia.
Brian Deese, a former senior economic adviser in the Obama administration and now the managing director and global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, is expected to be named director of the White House National Economic Council, according to a person familiar with transition plans who was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Deese worked on the auto bailout and environmental issues in the Obama White House, where he held the title of deputy director of both the NEC and the OMB
Cecilia Rouse, a labor economist and head of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, is Biden’s pick to serve as chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers. She served on the CEA from 2009 to 2011, and served on the NEC from 1998 to 1999 in the Clinton administration.
Notably, she organized a letter earlier this year signed by more than 100 economists calling for more government action to mitigate the fallout for Americans caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rouse, who is Black, would be the first woman of color to chair the CEA.
Biden also named Heather Boushey, the president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Jared Bernstein, who served as an economic adviser to Biden during the Obama administration, to serve on the council. Both Boushey and Bernstein advised Biden during the presidential campaign.