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New Zealand PM Delays Election by 4 Weeks After New COVID-19 Outbreak

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  • New cases of COVID-19 appeared in New Zealand last week, after 102 days without any known community transmission. So far, at least 69 active cases have been reported. 
  • Now the country is on lockdown, with the most strict measures set in the city of Auckland. 
  • The lockdowns sparked concerns about the upcoming general election, with citizens and politicians arguing that the delays in campaigning would not allow for a fair vote. 
  • In response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern moved the election back by four weeks, from Sept. 19 to Oct. 17.

New Coronavirus Cases Spark Concerns 

New Zealand is postponing its national election by four weeks in response to new coronavirus cases that have suddenly appeared. 

Last week, a new cluster of cases were reported in Auckland, the country’s largest city. As of Monday, there are believed to be at least 69 active cases.

Citizens quickly received confirmation of an outbreak and by last Wednesday the government had enacted a strict level three lockdown. Under it, people are required to stay home unless for essential activities, and public venues like museums, playgrounds and gyms are to remain closed. This was a huge deal for New Zealanders because they had just made it through 102 days without any known community transmission. 

When the virus first appeared in New Zealand in March, the country spent five weeks under one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. That quick action and public cooperation allowed New Zealand to effectively eliminate the virus. While border controls remained in place, the country was able to return to fairly normal life, so this new wave of cases has caught many by surprise. 

While Auckland has the most strict measures in place, the rest of the country was put into a level two lockdown, which caps gatherings at no more than 100, among other things. Both were extended until at least August 26 based on the most recent confirmed cases. However, that news made a lot of people concerned because the country’s general election was supposed to be just around the corner. 

The election was set for September 19, with campaigning expected to really pick up in the weeks before, following the dissolution of parliament. Because of the outbreak, both citizens and politicians felt it would be impossible to proceed with a vote in a way that was fair. Among the list of concerts were arguments that there wouldn’t be enough time to rebook venues, print materials, and reorganize the election workforce. 

Last week, National Party Leader Judith Collins, who is the leader of the opposition, called for the election to be delayed until November or potentially even until next year. Meanwhile, Winston Peters, deputy prime minister and leader of the New Zealand First Party, sent a letter to his coalition partner, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, also calling for a delay. 

At the time, he said that until the alert level is dropped, the “playing field is hopelessly compromised.”

Prime Minister Delays Election 

In a live-streamed press conference Monday, Prime Minister Ardern announced that she was delaying the election by four weeks, to October 17. 

Ardern said that while she had the sole authority to determine when people cast ballots, she did consult with all the major parties in the country before making such a major decision.

“In the end what matters most is what is in the best interests of voters and our democracy,” she said. “Any decision to review the election date must be as free from partisan political interests as possible.”

Ultimately, she said that this compromise “provides sufficient time for parties to plan around the range of circumstances we could be campaigning under, for the electoral commission to prepare and for voters to feel assured of a safe, accessible and critical election.”

The new date keeps Election Day within the time frame set under New Zealand law, with the latest date possible being Nov 21. However, Ardern added that even if the outbreak gets worse, “we will be sticking with the date we have.”

The government can reassess if a further delay is needed, but there is currently no evidence to suggest it will be. 

Public Opinion of Ardern

With the election delayed, now the New Zealand government can focus primarily on the coronavirus cases. According to local reports, health officials are moving quickly to test thousands of workers at airports and other points of entry to figure out how the virus reemerged. 

So far, it seems that all of the cases appear to be linked through family or work connections and the infections outside Auckland were traced back to relatives in the city. Still, questions remain about whether or not this new wave could hurt Ardern. 

According to the New York Times, Ardern’s approval ratings skyrocketed after the country’s first lockdown. However, Ardern is facing some scrutiny as officials try to determine what recently went wrong and how long this new set of restrictions will last.

Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand told the Times: “If it transpires that there was a considerable oversight, lax regulation or flawed implementation, that could have a very significant impact on the narrative.”

Still, he noted that there “is a deep reservoir of good will toward the prime minister,” and it is possible that her handling of the upcoming election will actually help her stay in many’s good graces. 

“She might have just added 5 percent to her polling by making an announcement that many New Zealanders will think is reasonable, fair and sensible,” Shaw added.

In fact, a poll taken over the weekend from the New Zeland Herald-Kantar showed that 60% of New Zealanders favored a delay and early opinion polls indicate that Arbern’s Labour party is favored to win a second term.

Arderns response to the newest outbreak and any major decisions she makes in the next coming weeks could prove to be crucial for the Labour party.  

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

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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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