Human Rights Watch: Trump, European populists foster bigotry, discrimination

Human Rights Watch: The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world, Human Rights Watch said today in launching its World Report 2017. Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk.

Meanwhile, strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security. These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality, Human Rights Watch said.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights not as an essential check on official power but as an impediment to the majority will.

“The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights,” Roth said. “Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.”

Roth cited Trump’s presidential campaign in the US as a vivid illustration of the politics of intolerance. He said that Trump responded to those discontented with their economic situation and an increasingly multicultural society with rhetoric that rejected basic principles of dignity and equality. His campaign floated proposals that would harm millions of people, including plans to engage in massive deportations of immigrants, to curtail women’s rights and media freedoms, and to use torture. Unless Trump repudiates these proposals, his administration risks committing massive rights violations in the US and shirking a longstanding, bipartisan belief, however imperfectly applied, in a rights-based foreign policy agenda. [Continue reading…]

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Spy agencies around the world are digging into Trump’s Moscow ties

BuzzFeed reports: The dossier alleging that the Russian government has compromised President-elect Donald Trump has not only been circulating at the highest levels of the US government, but also among the intelligence agencies of other countries, two Israeli intelligence officers told BuzzFeed News. And while the dossier’s claims haven’t been verified, the officers said that intelligence services from other countries have been doing their own digging into Trump’s connections to Moscow.

“You can trust me that many intelligence agencies are trying to evaluate the extent to which Trump might have ties, or a weakness of some type, to Russia,” one of the intelligence officers said.

Part of Israel’s interest, he said, came from wanting to know how much of the intelligence it routinely shares with the Unites States might be fed to Russia.

The document published by BuzzFeed News “had been circulating for some months” among intelligence officers from various governments, one of the officers said. Both asked to speak on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the claims in the dossier, a 35-page collection of memos commissioned by political opponents of Trump and written by a former British intelligence agent, identified in news reports as Christopher Steele.

Besides the Steele dossier, several unconfirmed reports of ties between Moscow and Trump are being circulated among Western intelligence agencies, said one of the Israeli officials familiar with the reports.

“There have been various reports about Trump’s ties to Russia,” the officer said in reference to other unpublished reports. “The dossier is one of them, but there are others, they make other allegations. Some are more specific, and some are less. You can trust me that many intelligence agencies are trying to evaluate the extent to which Trump might have ties, or a weakness of some type, to Russia.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad linked to Syrian chemical attacks for first time

Reuters reports: International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters.

A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.

Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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First sign of enhanced U.S.-Russia relations under Trump: An invite to Syria talks

The Washington Post reports: Russia has invited the incoming Trump administration to Syrian peace talks it is sponsoring later this month with Turkey and Iran, part of a process from which the Obama administration pointedly has been excluded.

U.S. participation, especially if an agreement is reached, would be the first indication of the enhanced U.S.-Russia cooperation that President Vladi­mir Putin and President-elect Donald Trump have forecast under a Trump administration.

The invitation, extended to Trump’s designated national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, came in a Dec. 28 phone call to Flynn by Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador in Washington, according to a transition official. [Continue reading…]

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How Russian ‘kompromat’ destroys political opponents, no facts required

Sarah Oates writes: The 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump have given Russia a wonderful opportunity to showcase one of its best national products: a particularly effective type of media manipulation called “kompromat.”

Short for “compromising material” in Russian, kompromat is all about the intersection of news and blackmail. It’s the ability to sully the reputations of political opponents or pressure allies through hints, images, videos, promises of disclosures, perhaps even some high-quality faked documentation. Sex or pornography often figures prominently. The beauty of kompromat is that it has to create only a sense of doubt, not prove its case conclusively. This sounds a bit like “fake news,” but in a classic kompromat operation, real Russian state media organizations work in tandem with the Kremlin to find appealing and effective ways to discredit the target. Often, that means in the most visceral and personal ways possible.

Now kompromat may have come to the United States.

This past week, news broke that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump on unsubstantiated allegations that Russian operatives had gathered scandalous information on him or had had contacts with his advisers. But kompromat was a constant undercurrent in the campaign, too: National security officials say hackers linked to Russian intelligence got into the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in order to leak damaging information about her. And Trump’s love of conspiracy theories and baseless accusations isn’t so far from the Russian concept, either — which may be why the idea that he might have been a target of kompromat himself is resonating so clearly with his political opponents. [Continue reading…]

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Three thousand fake tanks: How a network of conspiracy sites spread a fake story about U.S. military reinforcements in Europe

Digital Forensic Research Lab reports: On January 4, a little-known news site based in Donetsk, Ukraine published an article claiming that the United States was sending 3,600 tanks to Europe as part of “the NATO war preparation against Russia”.

Like much fake news, this story started with a grain of truth: the US was about to reinforce its armored units in Europe. However, the article converted literally thousands of other vehicles — including hundreds of Humvees and trailers  — into tanks, building the US force into something 20 times more powerful than it actually was.

The story caught on online. Within three days it had been repeated by a dozen websites in the United States, Canada and Europe, and shared some 40,000 times. It was translated into Norwegian; quoted, unchallenged, by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti; and spread among Russian-language websites.

It was also an obvious fake, as any Google news search would have revealed. Yet despite its evident falsehood, it spread widely, and not just in directly Kremlin-run media. Tracking the spread of this fake therefore shines a light on the wider question of how fake stories are dispersed. [Continue reading…]

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At Paris meeting, major powers to warn Trump over Middle East peace

Reuters reports: Major powers will send a message to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday that a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians is the only way forward, and warn that his plan to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem could derail peace efforts.

Some 70 countries, including key European and Arab states as well as the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, are due in Paris for a meeting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected as “futile” and “rigged”. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will be represented.

But, just five days before Trump is sworn in, the conference provides a platform for countries to send a strong signal to the future American leader. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Nils Petter Molvaer — ‘Kakonita’

 

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Did the Trump transition team conspire with Russia to undermine U.S. sanctions?

As the primary beneficiary of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, it stands to reason that Donald Trump would not want to punish his benefactor, Vladimir Putin. For that reason, we might expect that when President Obama imposed the most recent round of sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the attack on American democracy, Trump would want to reassure his patron that sanctions relief is close at hand. Moreover, for this reassurance to have the greatest value it would need to be conveyed before Russia gave the standard tit-for-tat response to having dozens of diplomats expelled.

That’s probably why David Ignatius raised these questions on Thursday:

According to a senior U.S. government official, [Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T.] Flynn [Trump’s choice for national security adviser] phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated?

The Associated Press now reports: President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, including on the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior U.S. official says.

After initially denying that Michael Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak spoke Dec. 29, a Trump official said late Friday that the transition team was aware of one call on the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions.

It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as Obama imposed sanctions would raise questions about whether Trump’s team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia’s response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. for the move, a decision Trump quickly praised.

More broadly, Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the incoming administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for its promised closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over intelligence officials’ assessment that Putin launched a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.

In an interview published Friday evening by The Wall Street Journal, Trump said he might do away with Obama’s sanctions if Russia works with the U.S. on battling terrorists and achieving other goals.

“If Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions?” he asked. [Continue reading…]

Putin helps Trump and Trump helps Putin — but no one should be in any doubt about who is the dominant partner in this bromance: it’s the one who’s rather proud of showing off his body; not the one who lives in fear of the day he might show up naked on the nightly news.

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The Trump dossier and the FBI cover-up

The Independent reports: Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who investigated Donald Trump’s alleged Kremlin links, was so worried by what he was discovering that at the end he was working without pay, The Independent has learned.

Mr Steele also decided to pass on information to both British and American intelligence officials after concluding that such material should not just be in the hands of political opponents of Mr Trump, who had hired his services, but was a matter of national security for both countries.

However, say security sources, Mr Steele became increasingly frustrated that the FBI was failing to take action on the intelligence from others as well as him. He came to believe there was a cover-up, that a cabal within the Bureau blocked a thorough inquiry into Mr Trump, focusing instead on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Embattled FBI director James Comey has refused to clarify whether his organization is investigating Donald Trump’s ties to Russia in a closed briefing on Friday for members of Congress, angering legislators who recall his high-profile interjections about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, the Guardian has learned.

Comey’s lack of candor in a classified setting, intended to brief members on the intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia interfered in the election to benefit Trump, follows a public rebuff this week to senators seeking clarification.

In that earlier hearing, Comey said he would “never comment” on a potential FBI investigation “in an open forum like this”, raising expectations among some attendees of Friday’s briefing that Comey would put the issue to rest in a classified setting.

But according to sources attending the closed-door Friday morning meeting, that was not the case. As such, frustration with Comey was bipartisan and heated, adding to intense pressure on the director of the FBI, whose conduct in the 2016 election itself is now being investigated by an independent US justice department watchdog.

One source in the meeting said Comey would not answer “basic questions” about the FBI’s current investigative activities. The FBI chief was grilled “over and over again”, according to the source, about his standards for acknowledging FBI investigations, with legislators repeatedly bringing up Comey’s dramatic public confirmation that the bureau was revisiting classification issues with Hillary Clinton’s private email server days before the election, as well as his summer press conference announcing that he would not seek indictment. [Continue reading…]

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Intelligence Committee will investigate possible Russia-Trump links

Politico reports: Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said late Friday that his committee will investigate possible contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, reversing himself one day after telling reporters that the issue would be outside of his panel’s ongoing probe into Moscow’s election-disruption efforts.

Burr and the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said in a joint statement that the committee’s probe would touch on “intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns” as well as Russian cyberattacks and other election meddling outlined in an intelligence report released last week.

The committee will use “subpoenas if necessary” to secure testimony from Obama administration officials as well as Trump’s team, Burr and Warner said.

The bipartisan Senate announcement came hours after several House Democrats aired their frustrations with FBI Director James Comey following a classified briefing on Russian election disruption. The Democrats were livid that Comey refused to confirm whether he is conducting an inquiry into potential Trump ties to Russia — a question that he publicly declined to answer earlier this week. [Continue reading…]

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South China Sea: China media warn U.S. over ‘confrontation’

BBC News reports: Blocking China from islands it has built in contested waters would lead to “devastating confrontation”, Chinese state media have warned.

The angry response came after secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson said the US should deny Beijing access to new islands in the South China Sea.

Two state-run papers carry editorials strongly criticising his comments.

The hawkish Global Times tabloid warned that any such action would lead to “a large-scale war”.

Beijing has been building artificial islands on reefs in waters also claimed by other nations. Images published late last year show military defences on some islands, a think-tank says.

Speaking at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson likened China’s island-building to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” [Continue reading…]

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