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Australian Cabinet Approves 2 Billion Dollars for Fire Relief

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  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday that at least 2 billion dollars have been approved for bushfire recovery services.
  • The fires have been blazing across the country for months, and have burned over 14 million acres and killed at least 24 people. It has also been estimated that 480 million animals have perished in the state of New South Wales alone. 
  • Australia has faced fires before, but none quite like this, as these flames are intensified by worsening climate change. 
  • Many are frustrated with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, criticizing him of being complacent in the wake of disaster and not taking enough political action to combat climate change.

Funding for Months-Long Destruction

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced funding of at least 2 billion Australian dollars for bushfire recovery on Monday after months of devastation. 

At least 24 people have been killed and over 14 million acres burned by the fires that have raged across the country.   

The fire season kicked up in September after the nation went through its warmest recorded spring. The heat continued into December, when the record was broken for Australia’s hottest day, with average highs of 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit blazing across the continent.  

These extreme temperatures, as well as long periods of drought and fierce winds, have led to the intensification and rapid spread of the fires.

Even with the rain and cooler temperatures that also came on Monday, providing temporary relief, the circumstances remain dire. 

Tens of thousands of firefighters have been battling the flames over the past few months, a majority of them volunteers. Despite these forces, the situation in Australia is so bad that the country has requested additional international aid. 

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, around 100 U.S. firefighters have been deployed to assist in suppressing the Australian bushfires. Canada is also sending firefighters to Australia for the first time. As of Sunday, 87 Canadian firefighters were deployed to Australia, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center

Widespread Destruction

The flames have affected the nation’s east coast the most, particularly the state of New South Wales, where over 1,300 homes have been destroyed. As of Monday morning, more than 130 fires were still burning across the state, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

On Nov. 11, the state issued a “catastrophic” fire danger warning. This was the first time a rating that high had been issued since the warning system went into effect in 2009, according to The New York Times. Last month, the air quality in Sydney was measured at 11 times the “hazardous” level. 

Victoria, the state below New South Wales, has faced its own frightening conditions. 

Last week, about 4,000 residents and tourists in the town of Mallacoota fled to nearby beaches to escape the flames. About 1,000 people participated in voluntary evacuations headed by the Australian Defense Force’s navy vessels.

Devastation to Wildlife

In addition to the fires having tragic effects on Australian locals, wildlife have also gravely suffered. An estimated 480 million animals have died in New South Wales alone, according to a report by Chris Dickman, a professor at the University of Sydney. 

This figure includes mammals, birds, and reptiles and does not take into account insects, bats or frogs. It is reported that while many of these animals were likely killed directly by the fires, some succumbed later due to a loss of food and shelter resources. 

Climate Change Implications

Australia has faced tough fires before, but this season is far more intense. The nation typically sees dry, hot summers, and climate change brings extended stretches of extreme heat, which makes vegetation even more susceptible to burn.

According to scientific reports by the United Nations Association of Australia, few if any other developed countries are as vulnerable to climate change as this one. 

Backlash Against Prime Minister

Throughout this year’s fire season, Prime Minister Morrison has received backlash for his response to the disasters—and for what critics call his lack of political action in response to climate change.

In the wake of the bushfires, Morrison took a vacation to Hawaii before for the holidays. But after facing much criticism, he cut his trip short and returned home.

Scrutiny for Morrison then continued after his visit to Cobargo on Jan. 2, a town in New South Wales that has been heavily affected by the fires.

Morrison’s attempt to talk with locals and volunteers did not go well. After reaching out to thank a firefighter, the man said to him: “I don’t really want to shake your hand.”

Another Cobargo local made headlines when she criticized Morrison for not giving enough funds to Rural Fire Services.

“I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to RFS,” she told the Prime Minister. “So many people here have lost their homes. We need more help.”

International Attention

The Australian fires have gained attention from people all around the world, including celebrities who are donating funds toward relief and using their platforms to promote awareness. 

Nicole Kidman, who holds Australian citizenship, announced on Instagram that her family is donating $500,000 to RFS.

Musician Pink, whose full name is Alecia Beth Moore, pledged the same amount to local disaster services. 

Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has been posting and reposting updates on the fires for months, urging people to take action in the climate crisis.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Washington Post) (New York Times)

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Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Fired Over Speech Reminiscent of Nazi Rhetoric

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  • Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Roberto Alvim was fired on Friday after he appeared to paraphrase Nazi propaganda in his announcement of a national arts initiative.  
  • Several of Alvim’s sentences were strikingly similar to those of Joseph Goebbels, who served as the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany.
  • Additionally, the music playing in the background of Alvim’s address was from an opera that Adolf Hitler found imperative in his life. 
  • After much backlash and call for the culture secretary’s termination, President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he dismissed Alvim from his position.

Controversial Address

Brazil’s Secretary of Culture was terminated from his role on Friday after an official video was released of him seeming to paraphrase Nazi propaganda remarks. 

Roberto Alvim, who was appointed to his position by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, announced a new initiative for increased funds dedicated to national art awards. In the 6-minute video, which has now been deleted from all Brazilian government official pages, Alvim was seen sitting at a desk beneath a portrait of Bolsonaro, a wooden cross to his side.

“The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and national,” he said to the camera in Portuguese. “It will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement, and it will also be imperative since it will be profoundly connected to the urgent aspirations of our people — or it will be nothing.”  

Parts of Alvim’s phrasing was almost identical to those of Joseph Goebbels, who served as the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany. The similarities can be seen in a speech of Goebbels’, quoted in a biography by historian Peter Longerich.

“German art of the next decade will be heroic, steely but romantic, factual without sentimentality,” Goebbels said in 1933. “It will be nationalistic, with great depth of feeling; it will be binding and it will unite, or it will cease to exist.”  

The music playing in the background of Alvim’s address was also noteworthy. It came from Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” which Adolf Hitler described in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, as being decisive in his life.

Reactions to Alvim’s Speech  

It wasn’t long before people began to notice the likeness of Alvim’s rhetoric with the Nazi propaganda, and individuals across the political spectrum expressed outrage. Some — including prominent Brazillian politicians — publicly called for Alvim’s immediate professional termination. 

Alvim first defended his speech in a Facebook post, saying, “what the left is doing is a remote association fallacy.” He called his controversial sentences a “rhetorical coincidence.” 

But a few hours later, Alvim softened his defensive stance with an apology to the Jewish community. In another post, he claimed that the speech was brought to him by advisors who pulled various ideas tied to national art and that he had no idea of the fascist origin of those few lines. Alvim called the criticized phrases an “involuntary mistake” and said he was sorry from the bottom of his heart.

President Jair Bolsonaro announced on his official Twitter page that he had dismissed Alvim from his position on Friday. Bolsonaro wrote that despite Alvim’s apology, his remarks made his tenure “unsustainable.” 

The Brazilian leader emphasized his “rejection of totalitarian and genocidal ideologies” and expressed full support for the Jewish community. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (BBC) (Washington Post)

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Pope Francis Names First Woman to Senior Vatican Diplomatic Role

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  • Pope Francis appointed a woman to a management role in the Vatican’s most powerful department for the first time on Wednesday.
  • Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, a Vatican official of 27 years, will now serve as the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. 
  • Among other duties, Di Giovanni will oversee the coordination of the Vatican’s relationships with multilateral organizations, including the United Nations. 
  • While several other women hold high-ranking positions in the city-state, Di Giovanni’s leadership role in the Vatican’s most powerful branch is unparalleled. 

Appointment of Di Giovanni

Pope Francis made an unprecedented move on Wednesday by appointing a woman for the first time to a managerial position in the Secretariat of State, the most powerful department of the Vatican.

Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, an Italian lawyer and Vatican official of 27 years, was named the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. Among other responsibilities, Di Giovanni will oversee a division that coordinates the Vatican’s relations with multilateral organizations, including the United Nations.  

“The Holy Father has made an unprecedented decision, certainly, which, beyond myself personally, represents an indication of an attention towards women,” Di Giovanni told the Vatican’s in-house media

“But the responsibility is connected to the job, rather than to the fact of being a woman,” she added.

Milestone for Women in Catholic Church

Several women hold leadership positions in other Vatican offices, but the Secretariat of State is the most powerful branch, making Di Giovanni’s career shift extra significant. 

Pope Francis’ appointment of Di Giovanni is the latest development in his ongoing open support of women having more say in the Roman Catholic Church. Currently, women cannot be ordained as priests and the Church’s leadership is almost entirely male-dominated.

On New Year’s Day, the pope expressed praise for womankind. 

“Women are givers and mediators of peace and should be fully included in decision-making processes,” Pope Francis said. “Because when women can share their gifts, the world finds itself more united, more peaceful. Hence, every step forward for women is a step forward for humanity as a whole.”

Di Giovanni referenced these words in her interview with the Vatican News calling them the pope’s “tribute” to the role of women.

“A woman may have certain aptitudes for finding commonalities, healing relationships with unity at heart,” Di Giovanni said. “I hope that my being a woman might reflect itself positively in this task, even if they are gifts that I certainly find in my male colleagues as well.”  

See what others are saying: (Vatican News) (NPR) (BBC)

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Protests Erupt in Iran After Military Admits to Shooting Down Plane

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  • Protests broke out across Iran over the weekend after the military admitted that it shot down a Ukrainian airline’s passenger jet, killing 176 people when mistaking it for a hostile aircraft.
  • Officials originally said there was no evidence of the plane being struck down by one of their missiles but ultimately admitted fault three days later.
  • Protesters are demanding leaders be held accountable. 
  • There are reports of tear gas and gunfire being used against demonstrators, but Tehran’s head of police has denied claims of shots being fired.

Backlash from the Plane Strike

Monday marked the third straight day of Iranian protests since Iran’s military admitted it shot down a passenger jet last week, mistaking it for a threat and killing all 176 people on board. 

Videos emerged on Sunday of protesters running from tear gas and in others, which could not be immediately verified, gunfire could be heard.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for Iranians—last week, hundreds of thousands were rallying in the streets to publicly mourn Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s Quds Force commander who was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3.

During those rallies, cries of hate against the United States and Donald Trump—who ordered the strike— were heard. This week there is a sharp contrast, as protesters seem to be targeting the Iranian government and military.

According to The Washington Post, demonstrators were filmed late on Sunday in at least two locations ripping down posters of Soleimani. In Iran’s capital, Tehran, a billboard mourning the victims of the plane crash replaced one of the deceased military leader.

In retaliation for Soleimani’s death, Iran fired missiles at an Iraqi military base that houses American troops on Wednesday. The plane was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps just hours later after taking off from Tehran. 

After maintaining for days that there was no evidence the aircraft was struck down by one of their missiles, Iran admitted that its military had shot down the jet by mistake.

The military initially claimed in a statement that the plane took an unexpected turn that brought it close to a sensitive military base, but an Iranian official later backtracked on that notion. 

“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ airspace unit, said on Saturday. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the incident an “unforgivable mistake” and said that investigations are continuing to “identify and prosecute this great tragedy.”  

A mix of individuals from multiple countries was onboard the aircraft, including dozens of Canadians. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “a national tragedy” and publicly called for further investigation.

“I want to assure all families and all Canadians: We will not rest until there are answers,” he said at a memorial event on Sunday.

Escalating Protests

Protesters are demanding that leaders be held responsible for the fatal mistake. Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that up to 1,000 people were protesting at various points in the capital city. Some videos posted to social media show crowds demanding the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

One of the scenes of protest was the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which said that 13 of its students and alumni were killed in the plane crash. Iranian security forces stepped in and escalated the demonstration.

They “started dragging people away. They took a number of people and put them in cages in police vans,” said 35-year-old Soudabeh told The Washington Post, keeping her full name anonymous.

“At one point, the protesters freed one of the men who was detained. I saw his face and it was covered in blood — his family carried him away,” she told the news outlet.

Iran’s security forces have a history of taking extreme action to contain protesters. In November, after protests broke out in response to the spike in Iran’s gas prices, about 1,500 demonstrators were killed by security forces, according to the Trump administration. 

Iranian media quoted Brig. Gen. Hossein Rahimi as saying “Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” according to reports by the Associated Press. 

Rahimi denied claims that police were shooting at protesters and said that tear gas was only being used in certain areas.

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

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