Millions remain at risk in Yemen’s ‘purposely forgotten’ war

As a brutal war in Yemen drags on into its third year, humanitarian groups continue to be frustrated by what the UN has described as a ‘blatant disregard’ for civilians.

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Speaking to BBC radio this week, Yemen’s UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick castigated rebel forces, the exiled government and their Saudi allies for a growing humanitarian disaster and a “purposely forgotten” war.

“The parties who are involved in this conflict don’t really care at all about the people they represent,” Mr McGoldrick told the broadcaster.

Over the course of the two-year conflict, numerous reports have emerged of the warring parties and their western allies using diplomatic pressure to stymie investigations.

“The parties often don’t want the stories to be told,” Mr McGoldrick said.

Those stories paint a catastrophic picture for the country’s 27 million inhabitants.

Conflict-affected Yemenis receive local charity-provided food rations in Sana’a, Yemen, 13 April 2017. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

UN representatives say seven million Yemenis are at risk of famine, including hundreds of thousands of children already facing severe acute malnutrition.

“There are children who are two years old, but look less than one year old because they have shrunk due to the lack of food and health care,” said Unicef deputy representative Dr Sherin Varkey from the country’s capital, Sana’a.

More than 50,000 civilians have been killed and injured as bombs have landed on schools, mosques, factories and hospitals – the UN says a child is killed every 10 minutes.

“These deaths are largely due to preventable causes like pneumonia and diarrhoea,” Dr Varkey said.

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The UN has blamed both sides for targeting civilians and using child soldiers, but has singled out the Saudi-led coalition for its devastating airstrikes on civilian targets.

“What is really required, is that the international community puts pressure on the parties to really respect humanitarian law,” Dr Varkey said.

“Whether it is the direct attacks on children, or attack on hospitals, on schools, this really needs to stop.”

Smoke and balls of fire rise from an alleged Houthi-held military position after it was hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Sana’a, Yemen, 25 September 2016. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

The war in Yemen was sparked by a Houthi coup in September 2014, which forced President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi to flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states – which backed the Hadi government and claimed the rebels were Iranian proxies – launched a forceful military intervention to overthrow the rebels and restore the government.

Supported by intelligence and military advice from the United States, as well as weapons supplied by the US, UK and others, the Arab coalition has pounded the country with airstrikes – but the conflict remains a military stalemate.

Meanwhile, the country’s economy has collapsed under the weight of damaged infrastructure, an ongoing naval blockade, and a new rebel government which is failing to pay civil servants – including doctors and teachers.

Veteran diplomat Jan Egeland, who has just returned from a five-day tour of the country, said in a statement that he was shocked by what he saw.

“This is a gigantic failure of international diplomacy,” he said, “this preventable catastrophe is man-made from A to Z.”

“Nowhere on earth are as many lives at risk.”

A member of a local human rights group takes photos of a destroyed funeral hall a day after Saudi-led airstrikes targeted it, in Sanaa, Yemen, 09 October 2016.EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Heroic healthcare workers

Dr Varkey, who recently toured health facilities in the port city of Hodeida, said the health and education systems in the country were crumbling.

The condition of the children’s hospital in the city was truly appalling, he said.

“There is a huge lack of supply of medicine and other essential supplies. There is more than one child on every bed.”

“Families have to choose between treating a sick child or looking after the nutrition of the remaining children.”

Half of all healthcare facilities have closed, the World Health Organisation has reported, and hundreds have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict.

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“I have to also mention the heroic health workers,” Dr Varkey said, “who, having not been paid salaries since the last seven months, are still turning up for work.”

There is concern both in Hodeida and around the world that the Saudi-coalition strikes will target the city’s port facilities, which have already been running at reduced capacity because of earlier damage.

Saudi Arabia has said the Houthi-controlled port is being used for weapons smuggling, but the UN has strongly urged against attacking the facility, which is also a major humanitarian access route.

“It is really important that the Hodeida port remains open and functional,” said Dr Varkey.

“This remains a lifeline for other countries’ humanitarian supplies, and this is important to really protect.”

A young Yemeni carries a bottle filled with water from a donated source amid disruption of water supplies in Sana’a, Yemen, 28 October 2016. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Averting catastrophe

With good levels of humanitarian access across the country, despite bureaucratic hurdles, the UN says the primary hurdle aid agencies face is money.

“If the money does materialise and is available, this can definitely go a long way in reaching the people most in need,” Dr Varkey said.

The UN has just completed a major donor conference, which received pledges totalling US $1.1 billion (AU $1.4 billion). Australia pledged $10 million.

“It was heartening to see the amounts pledged,” said Dr Varkey.

“But we have to keep in mind that the total ask was for $2.1 billion, so that is still a significant gap in addressing the humanitarian needs of the population.”

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“This is only the budget required for providing immediate, life-saving care – there are many more needs which need to be met.”

One of the largest donations came from Saudi Arabia, which pledged $150 million at the April conference. Gulf partners, as well as the US and the UK, were also major donors.

It’s an irony not lost on those working in the country.

“We’re being supported from a humanitarian point of view by the same people who are arming the parties and keeping the conflict moving,” Mr McGoldrick told the BBC.

As the country lurches into its third year of conflict, the UN says there’s no military solution to the crisis.

All parties need to urgently implement a ceasefire and re-commence political negotiations, the organisation says.

Delegates attend the high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, 25 April 2017.EPA/VALENTIN FLAURAUD

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Flynn declines US subpoena in Russia probe

Former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn has declined to comply with a subpoena from the US Senate Intelligence Committee as it investigates possible Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

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Flynn invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, according to a letter to the Senate committee from his lawyer on Monday, which was obtained by Reuters.

The retired lieutenant general is a key witness in the Russia probe.

Flynn’s lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the top Republican and Democrat on the panel, say they are disappointed by Flynn’s decision, but will “vigorously pursue” his testimony.

The committee is conducting one of the main congressional probes into US intelligence agency reports of Russian meddling in the election and whether there was any collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations and Trump denies any collusion between his campaign and Russian officials.

Flynn apparently misled Pentagon investigators about his foreign connections when he sought to renew his security clearance in early 2016, according to a document obtained by congressional Democrats and released in part on Monday.

Flynn, interviewed as part of the clearance renewal process, said that all of his foreign trips as a private citizen “were funded by US companies,” according to excerpts of a March 14, 2016 report compiled by security clearance investigators.

In fact, a trip Flynn made to Moscow in December 2015, where he attended a gala dinner and sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was paid for by Russia Today, which US officials consider a state-run propaganda arm, according to documents previously released by the House Oversight Committee.

The document is the latest to shed light on how Flynn received a security clearance and was subsequently hired as Trump’s national security advisor. He was forced to resign from the job in February after less than a month for failing to disclose the content of his talks with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and then misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.

The Senate committee first requested documents from Flynn in an April 28 letter, but he declined to cooperate with the request. Then it issued a subpoena.

In response, his lawyer wrote to the committee that “the context in which the Committee has called for General Flynn’s testimonial production of documents makes clear that he has more than a reasonable apprehension that any testimony he provides could be used against him.”

Flynn’s legal team say he’s rejecting the subpoena because the committee spurned his offer, made in a May 8 letter.

It was not clear what the committee would do if Flynn decided not to comply.

On Monday, Senator James Lankford, a Republican member of the intelligence panel, said on Twitter that Flynn was within his rights to invoke the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution.

“We will get to the truth one way or another,” Lankford said on Twitter. “We need facts, not speculation & anonymous sources.”

Tehran Taboo: Hidden sex lives of Iranians revealed in Cannes film

Ali Soozandeh knows his film about the secret sex lives of Iranians will never be shown there.

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Nor is he likely to be welcomed home with open arms for portraying a religious judge with a taste for sadomasochism who keeps a harem of women scattered across the country’s capital.

But he doesn’t regret for a second pulling back the veil on sexual hypocrisy and corruption he claims is at the heart of the Islamic Republic in his daring animated feature “Tehran Taboo”.

“I wanted to break the silence in Iran,” Soozandeh told AFP at the Cannes film festival, where the film has been compared to Marjane Satrapi’s international hit “Persepolis”.

“By keeping silent we don’t help society evolve nor tackle its problems,” he added.

Soozandeh, 47, who lives in Germany, said the myriad religious restrictions in his homeland force people to cheat and be dishonest with themselves, rotting them from within.

Lies and hidden vice

“Iranians are a creative people and learn quickly how to get round prohibitions… To compensate for forced public fronts” people can go “out of bounds in regards to sex, drugs and alcohol”, he added.

“Lack of freedom pushes people into living by double standards.”

“Tehran Taboo” turns on Pari, a hooker with a heart of gold who takes her mute son with her to work on the streets, a relatively common practice in Iranian cities, Soozandeh said. 

Forced into prostitution because her jailed drug addict husband won’t give her a divorce, the judge who refuses to sign the papers makes her his mistress.

Often told through the eyes of her son, Elias, the film is a panorama of Tehran’s hidden vice, duplicitous respectability and the creeping fear that seems to seep into every corner of daily life.

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The trailer shows old man flicking between ayatollahs preaching and porn on his illegal satellite television, unscrupulous doctors “restoring” women’s virginity, and a seemingly loving husband refusing his wife permission to work as a teacher.

In such an atmosphere, normally law-abiding people are forced to skirt the rules as the ever-present religious police cruise the streets arresting young couples for holding hands.  

Soozandeh said he wanted to subtly counterpoint the injustices and petty cruelties of daily life in Tehran with the heavy hand of the state. 

In one scene the sparky Pari and her son drive past a public hanging with one of her clients while spectators record it on their smartphones.

‘Fizzes with bad behaviour’

Soozandeh got the idea for the film after overhearing young Iranians on the metro returning from a holiday in Tehran boasting of their sexual adventures there.

“But this is not a film about prostitution, or even women,” he told AFP. “The sexual restrictions also apply to men but women suffer far more. Women carry a huge responsibility for family honour in Iran.

“Women bear the brunt of these restrictions, but as mothers they go on to impose them and transmit them to their children,” he added.

Despite its grim subject matter, critics said the film “fizzes with energy and bad behaviour”, with Screen International calling it “a wily account of twentysomething Iranians negotiating an assault course of laws and prohibitions to get their kicks”.

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Soozandeh said the landslide re-election of reformist President Hassan Rouhani at the weekend was “a small step” in the right direction.

But Iran is not going to change overnight, he argued. 

“The real problem is in our heads. Until people ask themselves why they are collaborating to keep the restrictions alive then nothing will change. Once people question their own roles, then things can change in a society.”

Soozandeh – who worked as an animator on “Green Wave”, about Iran’s disputed 2009 election – said that while his debut film will never be shown there publicly, he has no doubt Iranians will watch it online.

He admitted many will not like what they see.

“When you break a taboo part, some will hate what they see. The film is a mirror. People will not like the image of Tehran and Iran that it projects. But if they are honest, what they are objecting to greets them every morning in the mirror.”

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Feds blast state government over Adani

The federal government warns thousands of desperately-needed jobs in north Queensland are at risk after Indian mining giant Adani deferred a final investment decision on its controversial Carmichael coal mine.

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The company’s decision followed factional wrangling inside the Queensland government that delayed a cabinet discussion over royalty payments.

“It’s a remarkable and embarrassing situation for Queensland that they don’t even have a tax regime in place,” federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan told ABC radio on Tuesday.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, a member of Labor’s Right faction, said the measure hadn’t been put to a cabinet meeting on Monday as expected.

Senator Canavan described the 11th-hour decision as “unbelievable” and a “shocking condemnation of the chaos that exists inside the Palaszcsuk government”.

It was putting at risk thousands of “desperately-needed” jobs in north Queensland, especially in Townsville where the unemployment rate was 11.3 per cent.

“People there are just exasperated,” Senator Canavan said.

Adani’s decision appears to be an attempt to increase the pressure on the state government to follow through on a so-called “secret deal” to reduce the company’s royalties in the first seven years of the mine’s operation.

Under the deal, Adani would reportedly only pay $2 million in royalties annually, which could end up costing taxpayers $320 million in lost income.

Senator Canavan rejected criticism Adani was being given a tax holiday, likening it to landlord incentives for first tenants of major commercial office space.

Trump insists he ‘never mentioned’ Israel to Russians as source of intelligence

US President Donald Trump has insisted that he “never mentioned” Israel in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at which he reportedly shared highly classified information from a foreign partner.

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The disclosure raised concerns that Trump had compromised an intelligence source and media later reported the information had come from the Israelis.

“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned during that conversation,” Trump said at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem when asked by journalists about the reports.

“They’re all saying I did, so you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”

No one said Trump mentioned Israel. He shared intelligence with Russians from Israel. Today, Trump seems to have unwittingly confirmed it.

— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) May 22, 2017

Trump reportedly told Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak at a meeting this month about an Islamic State threat using laptops on planes, including highly classified details about the origin of the intelligence, which came from a “partner” later reported to be Israel.

Reports had not alleged, as Trump seemed to imply, that the president had directly revealed the source of the intelligence to be Israel, rather that he had provided information that could potentially compromise the intelligence source.

The White House immediately denied the Washington Post report, until Trump tweeted the next day that he had an “absolute right” to share information he deems fit as president.

“Intelligence cooperation is terrific. It’s never been better,” Netanyahu said alongside Trump in Jerusalem.

Trump’s meeting with the Russian officials came amid broader questions about his handling of a probe into ties between his campaign and Russia and just one day after he fired FBI director James Comey, who had been leading the investigation.

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As Trump became the first sitting president to visit the hallowed Western Wall on Monday, it remained unclear whether his administration was changing longstanding US policy by declaring the wall’s location to be Israel, rather than Jerusalem.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed questions over whether the administration is considering a change in policy, after top officials offered conflicting views.

“The wall is part of Jerusalem,” he said, declaring an undeniable fact accepted by all sides. He didn’t elaborate on the more delicate question: whether the administration would change US policy over the status of Jerusalem.

The president arrived at the wall Monday afternoon, donning a yarmulke, as is the tradition at Jewish holy sites. His wife, Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner accompanied him. Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism to marry Kushner, an orthodox Jew.

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