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U.S. Will Not Join Christchurch Call Against Online Extremism Over Free Speech Concerns

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  • Countries and tech companies came together in Paris on Wednesday to sign a global pledge dubbed the Christchurch Call.
  • The symbolic document lays out new efforts to combat the spread of violent extremism and terrorist content online.  
  • The White House has chosen not to endorse the pledge, citing respect for freedom of expression, but said it supports its overall goals.

The Christchurch Call

The U.S. will not join a pledge signed by over a dozen countries and major tech companies to stand against online terrorism and extremism in the wake of the deadly mosque attacks in New Zealand.

The Christchurch Call is a pledge that was unveiled Wednesday in Paris by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron. The two announced their partnership on the pledge last month, saying that they hoped to work with other countries and tech companies to agree on ways to stop social media sites from being used to promote terrorism and violent extremist content.

The pledge is named after the New Zealand city that was attacked on March 15, when a gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch while live streaming the attack on Facebook.

The reposting and sharing of the footage was a massive issue for social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. Facebook, for instance, said they removed about 1.5 million copies of the footage within 24 hours.

What was pledged?

Ardern and Macron were joined by other world leaders, as well as representatives from tech giants to discuss ways to improve their current efforts to tackle online extremism.

The signatories signed a largely symbolic document, agreeing to enforce existing law on the dissemination of this type of content, while also respecting tech industry standards and government regulations.

“All action on this issue must be consistent with principles of a free, open and secure internet, without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression,” the pledge says.

“It must also recognise the internet’s ability to act as a force for good, including by promoting innovation and economic development and fostering inclusive societies.”

The text of the initiative outlines “collective, voluntary commitments” from governments and internet companies and does not include penalties for those that do no comply.

Britain, Canada, Ireland, Jordan, Norway, Senegal, Indonesia, and other nations have backed the action, along with some of the world’s biggest tech companies: Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft.

Supporters of the Christchurch Call

The tech giants promised to update their terms of service to “expressly prohibit the distribution of terrorist and violent extremist content” and said they would develop crisis protocols to better respond to active events like a terror attack.

The companies also said they would commit to releasing “transparency reports” on the detection and removal of extremist content and study how their algorithms sometimes promote that content.

“Terrorism and violent extremism are complex societal problems that require an all-of-society response,” the companies said in a joint statement. “For our part, the commitments we are making today will further strengthen the partnership that governments, society and the technology industry must have to address this threat.”

Why didn’t the U.S. Join?

President Trump did not attend Wednesday’s summit and the White House later released a statement announcing that the U.S. will not be signing onto the pledge.

“While the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement, we continue to support the overall goals reflected in the Call,” the statement said. “We will continue to engage governments, industry, and civil society to counter terrorist content on the Internet.”

The White House also cited concerns over free speech protections, saying: “We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

“We maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging,” the statement continued.

The statement went on to say that tech companies should continue to enforce their terms of use policies and community standards. Macron said he wanted to get “a more concrete and formal commitment” from the U.S. but saw the country’s support of the overall goals “as a positive element.”

Facebook Already Making Changes

Before the Paris summit, Facebook released a new policy change aimed at curbing the spread of violent extremism. The company rolled out a “one-strike” policy, that blocked users who violate their community standards from using its Facebook Live feature for a set amount of time.

See what others are saying: (Time) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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Myanmar Soldiers Claim in Confession Video They Were Ordered to Kill and Rape Rohingya

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  • Two Myanmar soldiers have appeared in a confessional video claiming to have been ordered to kill and rape Rohingya in 2017.
  • These are the first two first-hand accounts from Myanmar soldiers confirming widespread accusations that the Myanmar military partook in potential genocide against ethnic Rohingya.
  • However, the veracity of the claims hasn’t been confirmed, nor has whether or not the soldiers gave their confessions under duress by the rebel Arakan Army, who released the video.
  • Both men are currently at The Hague being interrogated by investigators at the International Criminal Court.

Genocide in the 21st Century

Two members of the Myanmar military appeared in a recently released video where they seemed to admit that they were ordered to pillage, kill, and rape Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The confessions appear to match accounts of the situation in Rakhine given by Rohingya survivors.

The Rohingya are a prominent ethnic group that live in the Rakhine state in western Myanmar, which borders the sea and Bangladesh. They have been described by the Myanmar government as “illegal aliens” despite having been in the region as far back as the 15th century. 

Over the decades, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the Myanmar military, which has demanded that they “return” to neighboring Bangladesh. In 2017, those tensions escalated when the military heavily cracked down on the Rakhine state and engaged in what human rights have described as having the “hallmarks of genocide.” Not only were Rohignya targeted, but many other people across the region.

At the time, video and satellite images of the areas showed large scale destruction, with many villages completely burned down. Tens of thousands fled their homes to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

According to Private Myo Win Tun and Private Zaw Naing Tun, the two men seen in the confessional video, “We destroyed the Muslim villages near Taung Bazar village. We implemented the clearance operations in the night-time as per the command to ‘shoot all that you see and that you hear.’ We buried a total number of 30 dead bodies in one grave.”

Pvt. Myo Win Tun and Pvt. Zaw Naing Tun

Justice Being Sought

The two soldiers are said to have fled Myanmar last month and arrived in Bangladesh, from where on Monday they were transported to The Hague, home of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. 

As for the veracity of the video, that is harder to determine. It is unclear if the soldiers are giving this confession under duress, or if they surrendered as deserters. The video was filmed by the Arakan Army, the largest and most organized militant group in Rakhine state, who represent a coalition of various ethnic groups in the region against the central Myanmar government. 

This lends to the possibility that the men were coerced to confess under duress. Yet, the Arakan Army has a long standing feud with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the main militant group representing the Rohingya,who would benefit the most from admissions of genocide.

However, many Human Rights Groups think the confessions are legitimate. 

“This is a monumental moment for Rohingya and the people of Myanmar in their ongoing struggle for justice,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights. “These men could be the first perpetrators from Myanmar tried at the I.C.C., and the first insider witnesses in the custody of the court.”

The Myanmar government continues to deny any wrongdoing in Rakhine, stating that the operations there were to clear out terrorist elements. Any footage of burned down villages has been waived away as Rohingya burning down their own villages for sympathy. Since 2017, only a handful of soldiers have been punished with short prison terms for “isolated” incidents.

The two soldiers held at The Hague are not under arrest, but are effectively in custody awaiting a potential trial. Lawyers and investigators have already spent weeks investigating their claims, and their testimony will likely be used by prosecutors at the International Court of Justice. 

There, Myanmar is being accused in a filing by Gambia of trying to “destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages.”

See What Others Are Saying: (CNN) (New York Times) (Reuters)

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Large Fire Erupts in Beirut’s Port, Weeks After Massive Explosion

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  • A large fire erupted in Beirut’s port Thursday, triggering panic among residents who are still traumatized by last month’s massive explosion. The Aug. 4 blast of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate left 190 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and 300,000 displaced from their homes. 
  • It’s not yet clear what caused the fire and crews are working to put it out. Residents have been warned to stay clear of the area in the meantime and no casualties were immediately reported. 
  • This is the second fire to break out at the port this week and it comes about a week after Lebanon’s army discovered four tons ammonium nitrate stored near the port.
  • Some believe the fire was set intentionally to hide evidence related to the explosion. For now, residents continue to live on edge as their distrust in the country’s management grows.

Fire Breaks Out 

A huge fire broke out in Beirut’s port on Thursday, terrifying local residents who are still recovering from the last month’s devastating explosion. 

Video posted online shows people running from massive flames and thick black smoke, which can be viewed from miles away. 

The fire was said to have started in a warehouse of a private company that imported cooking oil. It then spread to a separate stock of rubber tires, but as of now, there’s no information about what caused the blaze. 

No casualties were immediately reported, though we some reports of people with shortness of breath. According to the state-run news agency NNA, Beirut’s governor told residents to stay clear of the port area “for their safety” and to allow firefighters to perform their duties unhindered. All roads leading into the port are blocked off, and the Lebanese Army is currently working to help firefighters by dropping water on the flames from helicopters.

Trauma From Last Month’s Blast Lingers 

The fire broke out near a major highway known as a free zone, where companies store goods that have yet to clear customs. That area, like much of the port, was heavily damaged in the Aug. 4 explosion. That explosion was caused by a 2,750-ton stock of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored for years. Records later showed that government officials knew of the dangerous chemical stockpile but failed to act. 

The blast ultimately left 190 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and 300,000 displaced from their homes. For many, that explosion was the last straw, prompting major protests against longrunning corruption in the country, which was already suffering through its worst economic crisis in decades.

The protests eventually pushed the Prime Minister of Lebanon and his cabinet to resign, though many have still called for widespread reforms that will bring more meaningful change. 

Still, even with the government resigning, fear within the community has persisted. Just last week, the Lebanese Army said it had found more than four tons of ammonium nitrate stored near the port. They disposed of it, but it was a chilling discovery that made many uneasy. 

Then a smaller fire broke out earlier this week, which also caused a scare but was eventually put out by firefighters. This latest fire just builds onto the existing panic. People at the port and nearby neighborhoods have been scrambling flee or hide out of fear that this fire could cause a new explosion.

One local whose car and apartment were destroyed in the last month’s explosion told The New York Times, “I’m telling myself that nothing’s going to happen and it’s probably not a big deal, but you can’t fight the anxiety of opening all the windows, sitting inside a corridor or being jumpy all the time and having people call you, telling you to leave the area.”

Another person who was leaving the area with his wife and kids told Reuters, “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again.”

With a large fire so close to the original location of the explosion, some have speculated that it was deliberately set to destroy evidence. Others believe it’s just another example of what the country’s mismanagement brings. 

Some, like Lebanese MP Rola Tabsh, are calling for an international investigation into the Beirut port fires.

Beirut has suffocated from the smoke of your oppression. Beirut has burned from the fires of your corruption and arrogance,” she tweeted.

An international investigation now and not tomorrow.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (BBC)  

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Thousands of Refugees Displaced After Fire Blazes Through Europe’s Largest Migrant Camp

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  • A fire raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp on Wednesday, displacing around 12,000 refugees in a camp meant for 3,000.
  • The fire reportedly began overnight on the Greek island of Lesbos, but its cause remains unknown.
  • The fire follows reported clashes within the camp after 35 refugees, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, refused to isolate themselves and their families. It is still unconfirmed if those families actually refused to isolate or if this is what led to the fire.
  • Following evacuations, police blocked off roads leading to nearby towns, and locals attacked and prevented migrants from passing through a nearby village.

Fire Breaks Out 

A massive fire almost completely destroyed Europe’s largest migrant camp, leaving 12,000 migrants without shelter. 

The fire began overnight Tuesday. It originally started off as a series of small fires that broke out at the Moria Refugee Camp, located on the Greek island of Lesbos. Those fires became so large and destructive that within a matter of hours, they had reportedly left the entire camp unusable. 

Outside the scope of the fire, the situation has exposed a host of other serious issues faced by the Moria camp migrants. While an estimated 12,000 migrants had been sent to the camp to await updates on their asylum applications, it was only built to accommodate between 2,000 to 3,000 people. 

Human rights groups have criticized poor conditions at the site for years. In April, the Human Rights Watch even said that Greek authorities hadn’t done enough to tackle overcrowding, warning that the camp was not prepared to handle a potential coronavirus outbreak. 

The situation has also seemed to only widen the divide between migrants and locals in the area. For example, as migrants fled the scene, police blocked off roads leading from the camp in order to prevent them from entering nearby towns as authorities scramble to find them housing.

According to reports, some locals have even attacked migrants and prevented them from passing through one nearby village.

Because of that, the United Nations Human Rights Council has attempted to address the tension by urging people to “exercise restraint,” asking anyone who had been at the camp “to restrict their movements and stay near [the site], as a temporary solution is being found to shelter [migrants].”

What Led to the Fire?

It is unclear what directly led to the fires, but they came after a series of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Last week, authorities placed the camp under quarantine after a Somali migrant tested positive. By Tuesday, the number of cases had jumped up to 35. 

The Greek news agency ANA reported that the fires broke out after some of the 35 refused to isolate themselves and their families. According to CNN, some migrants on the ground said the fires were started by refugee protesters when a demonstration erupted over lockdown measures; however, both accounts have yet to be officially confirmed, and there are actually other fires also burning on the island because of strong winds.

Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told Greek state television that the fire was “premeditated,” and that migrant tents had been empty, with arsonists “[taking] advantage of strong winds.”

A local fire chief said that when firefighters rushed onto the scene, their efforts were hampered by protesting migrants,

However, many migrants have lodged much different claims. Some told a reporter for the BBC Persian that the fire had broken out after scuffles between migrants and Greek forces at the camp. Several even blamed “far-right Greeks” for setting the fire after those coronavirus cases were announced. Those migrants also provided photos of what they claimed to be canisters that were used to set the fire.

“It’s a time bomb that finally exploded,” Marco Sandrone, the Lesbos project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders told the BBC, adding that the migrants had been kept in “inhumane conditions” for years.

Axel Steier, co-founder of aid group Mission Lifeline, also told CNN that “the people in Moria are exposed to extreme psychological stress.”

“The lockdown of the camp has now been the final straw,” he added. “The refugees in Moria are not treated as humans.”

A government spokesperson has confirmed that reports of arson are under investigation. The government itself has also declared a four-month state of emergency.

International Response

Internationally, the European Union has offered help, with EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson saying on Twitter that she has “agreed to finance the immediate transfer and accommodation” of “400 unaccompanied children and teenagers.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has also expressed interest in transporting refugees onto mainland Europe.

“In cooperation with the EU Commission and other EU member states willing to help, we need to sort out as quickly as possible how we can support Greece,” he said. “This includes the distribution of refugees among those in the EU that are willing to take them.”

According to The New York Times, Armin Laschet, a governor in western Germany, has also said he’s willing to admit up to a thousand refugees from the camp.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (ANA)

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