WTO: China Can Place Duties on $645 Million in US Imports

The World Trade Organization on Wednesday handed a fresh victory to China, permitting it to place duties on $645 million worth of U.S. imports per year, in a long-running anti-dumping dispute with Washington.

The United States is unable to appeal the decision.

“The deeply disappointing decision today by the WTO arbitrator reflects erroneous Appellate Body interpretations that damage the ability of WTO members to defend our workers and businesses from China’s trade-distorting subsidies,” said Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

“Today’s decision reinforces the need to reform WTO rules and dispute settlement, which have been used to shield China’s non-market economic practices and undermine fair, market-oriented competition.”

The WTO green light does not mean China will automatically impose the tariffs, in whole or in part, on U.S. imports.

The figure was revealed in an 87-page decision by a WTO arbitrator on the level of countermeasures Beijing could request in its dispute with Washington regarding US countervailing duties (CVD) on certain Chinese products.

The dispute stretches all the way back to 2012, when the WTO set up a panel of experts to try to settle a complaint filed by China over what it said were unfair duties imposed by the United States.

Washington had justified the additional tariffs on products ranging from paper to tires and solar panels, arguing they were being dumped on the market to help Chinese companies grab business.

The WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled in China’s favor, and the ruling was upheld by its appeals judges in 2014, paving the way for China to retaliate.

Beijing initially asked to be permitted to place tariffs on $2.4 billion in U.S. products each year, but then scaled back its demand to $788.75 million.  

The United States had argued that the appropriate level should not exceed $106 million per year.

The anti-dumping duties are permitted under international trade rules as long as they adhere to strict conditions, and disputes over their use are often brought before the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body.  

Wednesday’s decision marks the second time the WTO has allowed China to retaliate for U.S. anti-dumping duties deemed to be in violation of international trade rules.

In November 2019, a WTO arbitrator permitted China to add duties on up to $3.6 billion worth of U.S. imports, in a separate case.

So far, China has not notified the WTO that it has implemented the approved retaliatory tariffs from that case.  

Washington has long complained about the WTO dispute settlement system, and especially its appeals court, claiming unfair treatment.

Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump brought the system to a grinding halt in December 2019 by blocking the appointment of new judges to the Appellate Body.

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Anticipated US Interest Hikes Expected to Reverberate Globally

Wednesday’s signal from the U.S. Federal Reserve on impending interest rate increases is expected to have ramifications beyond America’s shores.

The Fed’s Open Market Committee announced it was keeping, for now, the target range for a key interest rate at near zero but cautioned that with inflation well above 2% and a strong labor market, it expected “it will soon be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate.”

The federal funds rate is the interest rate commercial banks charge each other for overnight loans of their excess reserves.

“The committee is of a mind to raise rates at the March meeting,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told reporters Wednesday. “We have our eyes on risks around the world, but the economy should hold up.”

As the dollar serves as the primary international reserve currency, a U.S. interest rate hike would pressure central banks of other countries to also raise their rates for those who want to borrow money.

“The rest of the world has a lot of dollar debt, and even if their debt is in local currencies, their central banks will often have to raise interest rates to offset the U.S. rate increases to try to maintain some currency stability,” said Gerard DiPippo, senior fellow with the economics program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Raising interest rates is aimed at stifling consumer demand to address all of this money that’s sloshing around in our economy, and that’s going to affect consumers here, as well as producers of goods and other countries that rely on the U.S. market,” said Sarah Anderson, global economy project director at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Inflation ‘transmitted through trade’

Inflation in the United States is at a 40-year high amid surging consumer demand for goods, a strengthening domestic job market and pandemic-caused supply chain disruptions, including for critical semiconductors.

“The price of U.S. exports increased by more than the price of U.S. imports last year, so in a sense, the U.S. is exporting inflation because the cost of producing things in the U.S. has increased faster than the imports going into it from overseas. So, the inflation can be transmitted through trade,” DiPippo told VOA.

Some economists and policy analysts see the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden confusing structural and cyclical economic matters as it struggles to tame inflation.

“The cyclical phenomenon — inflation — over the next year or so, really only the Fed has the tools to deal with that,” DiPippo said. “Even if the Biden administration is able to increase subsidies to produce things in the United States or increase competition through regulation, those things take time. And we’re talking about inflation over the next year or two, not over the next five years. So, there’s a mismatch.”

The White House has repeatedly said that it is prioritizing lowering prices to help American households and that the best way to accomplish it is through increased competition.

“Competition results in lower prices for families. Competition results in fair wages for workers. And as you all know, competition encourages companies to innovate,” Biden said on Monday during a meeting of the White House Competition Council.

Prices have been surging in the United States and other countries since last year amid serious shortages of workers and the goods they produce. That has the International Monetary Fund predicting slower growth and faster inflation for the world’s biggest economies.

“People have shifted from spending money on services, like going out to restaurants and theaters, during the pandemic to buying more stuff,” Anderson told VOA. That has put more pressure on manufacturers, especially in countries such as China and Vietnam, which are having difficulty keeping pace with demand because so many workers have been sidelined by the pandemic.

“We can raise interest rates, but I don’t think the problem is going to go away until we end the pandemic,” Anderson added.

China’s “No-COVID policy may cause more lockdowns,” exacerbating the supply chain woes, Powell, the Fed chair, warned on Wednesday. “There’s plenty of risk out there.”

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As Iran Nears Uranium Breakout Capacity, US Mulls Bomb-Making Scenarios

With the United States warning that Iran is just weeks from developing the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, there is disagreement among Washington experts on the likelihood of Iran rushing to build such a weapon, and how the U.S. and its allies should deal with that risk. 

“[Iran] is getting to the point where its breakout time, the time it would take to produce fissile material for a bomb, is getting down to a matter of a few weeks,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a virtual event Monday.

The U.S. and Iran have been negotiating indirectly since last April to see if they can secure a mutual return to compliance with a 2015 deal in which Tehran promised to curb nuclear activities that could be weaponized in return for sanctions relief from the U.S. and other world powers.

“I think that will be decided in the next few weeks, because again, given what Iran is doing, we can’t allow this to go on,” Blinken said.   

Iran says its nuclear activities are for civilian use and denies seeking nuclear weapons.

The U.S. left the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump said it was not tough enough on Tehran and unilaterally reimposed U.S. sanctions. Iran retaliated a year later by starting a process of increasingly exceeding JCPOA limits on its nuclear work.

The U.S and Iran decided to start indirect talks in Vienna last year, through the mediation of world powers, after President Joe Biden succeeded Trump and pledged to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran would return to limiting its nuclear activities under the deal.

The agreement was intended to prevent Iran from producing enough highly enriched uranium to make one nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency says 25 kilograms of the uranium-235 isotope, which is accumulated when about 28 kilograms of uranium is enriched to 90% purity, is the breakout quantity at which the “possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device cannot be excluded.”

Israel long has viewed a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat because of repeated calls by the Islamic Republic for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israeli officials have estimated it would take Iran two years after attaining a breakout capacity to develop, if it wanted, a nuclear-armed missile that could reach Israel. 

U.S. physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told VOA Persian in a recent interview that Iran also could develop a cruder nuclear weapon in a much shorter time once it achieves a breakout capacity.

“Iran could rush to its first nuclear explosive, in our estimate, in about three months,” Albright said.

Georgetown University international relations professor Matthew Kroenig, who previously served as a U.S. Defense Department adviser on nuclear deterrence policy, told VOA that Iran could use that time to build a “gun-type” nuclear bomb.

“This is such a simple bomb design that the United States didn’t even test it before dropping one on Hiroshima in 1945,” Kroenig said. 

Kroenig said Iran could deploy such a weapon by dropping it from a plane, driving it to a target in a truck, or putting it in a container on a ship that sails into a port. “There is a lot of mayhem that Iran could cause before it gets to a fully deliverable warhead on a ballistic missile,” he said.

Other analysts interviewed by VOA said there is little point in speculating about weaponization steps Iran could take post-breakout, because it does not appear to have made a decision to reach the breakout stage, let alone go beyond it.

Israeli military intelligence chief Major-General Tamir Hayman told Israeli news site Walla in October that Iran was “not heading toward a bomb right now.” Similarly, U.S. CIA chief William Burns told a Wall Street Journal forum on December 6 that he did not “see any evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize,” according to CBS News.

Ploughshares Fund President Emma Belcher, whose grant-making organization seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, said ongoing IAEA inspections of Iran’s declared nuclear sites and Iranian leaders’ own statements also indicate a lack of intent to weaponize. “So, I am not concerned right now that Iran is going to do that,” she said.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of advocacy group Arms Control Association, said Iran also would see little benefit in making a crude nuclear bomb to use for blackmail or as a terrorist weapon against another country.

“Iran is a state with territory to defend and is concerned with regime preservation,” Kimball said. “Why would it, at great cost, give its terrorist proxies a nuclear device? The world would know where the fissile material came from. There are radiological fingerprints. So, there’s no escaping the attribution problem,” he added.

Even if Iran were to produce a breakout quantity of fissile material, Belcher said the U.S. and its allies could use diplomacy to try to secure Tehran’s agreement not to make it into a bomb.

“You could have a deal for Iran to down-blend that material so that it is no longer highly enriched, or you could ship that material elsewhere so that Iran cannot use it to create a nuclear weapon,” Belcher said.

Kimball said the international community also could use economic pressure, military strikes or covert action to make it difficult for a post-breakout Iran to build a nuclear bomb. He said if Iran tried to weaponize fissile material in secret by ejecting IAEA inspectors, further sabotage against Iranian nuclear sites would be “very likely.”

Iran has accused Israel of carrying out two blasts that damaged its Natanz uranium enrichment facility in July 2020 and April 2021. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

Scott Roecker, deputy vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative organization that advocates for reducing nuclear threats to humanity, said Iran has shown an increased desire in recent weeks to reach a deal to revive the JCPOA. But if that does not happen, he said continued diplomacy still would be the best way for the U.S. and its allies to deal with an Iran that has enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.

“I don’t think there needs to be any drastic steps in the next few weeks, should Iran get to that point, because it still would have to take more steps to achieve a true nuclear weapon capability,” Roecker said.

But hoping that a post-breakout Iran will decide not to weaponize, and assuming that countermeasures will work in case it does, is a strategy that could backfire on the U.S., warned Kroenig and Albright.

“Once Iran gets the first bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium, we could try to negotiate with it for a year or two. But why would Iran invest billions of dollars and endure sanctions and threats of military strikes to get one screwdriver turn away from a nuclear weapon, and then voluntarily stop short in a negotiation?” Kroenig asked. “If Iran has a clear path to the nuclear-armed club, it eventually will build an arsenal like North Korea and Pakistan did.”

If Iran were to build a crude nuclear bomb and use it without claiming responsibility, Kroenig said nuclear forensic scientists would look at the explosion and try to determine what triggered it, but the process could take months and lead to several countries being identified as possible culprits. “In this scenario, it’s not obvious that the U.S. would take decisive action, given the uncertainty of where the bomb came from and the risk of escalation if Iran retaliates with another nuclear explosion,” he said.

Albright said a post-breakout Iran also could detonate a crude nuclear device underground within months in a symbolic test of its capabilities. He said such a test likely would heighten regional tensions and lead to nuclear proliferation, with Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals wanting to start nuclear weapon programs.

“These scenarios create more urgency for us to put up firebreaks so that Iran doesn’t cross the nuclear breakout threshold,” Albright said. “We are close to failing in that effort.”

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US Warns of Risks of Doing Business in Myanmar

The United States issued an advisory Wednesday warning of the increased risk of conducting business in Myanmar nearly a year after a military coup in the Southeast Asian country, which is also known as Burma. 

The advisory from the U.S. State Department warned it was especially risky for “individuals, businesses and financial institutions and other persons” to be associated with business activity in Myanmar “that could benefit the Burmese military regime.” 

The advisory cited the possibility of exposure to illegal financial and reputational risks by doing business there, and using supply chains controlled by the military. 

“The coup and subsequent abuses committed by the military have fundamentally changed the direction of the economic and business environment in Burma,” the advisory said. 

Former de factor leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) led Myanmar since its first open democratic election in 2015, but Myanmar’s military contested the November 2020 election results, claiming widespread electoral fraud, largely without evidence.

The military removed the NLD government in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, detaining Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

Since then, the military government has used deadly force in clampdowns on protests while escalating efforts to neutralize ethnic minority armies and newly formed militias allied with the NLD government. Wednesday’s advisory said the military “has killed more than 1,400 innocent people” since its takeover. 

The advisory said state-owned enterprises were of greatest concern, as well as the gems and precious metals, real estate, construction and defense industries, noting that they have been identified as providing economic resources for the junta. 

The advisory was issued after oil giants Chevron Corporation and TotalEnergies said last week the worsening humanitarian situation prompted them to withdraw from the country, where they were working together on a major gas project. 

 

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US Central Bank Could Signal New Economic Policies

U.S. central bank policymakers are meeting in Washington on Wednesday and could signal how soon they plan to curb their direct support for the pandemic-hit American economy and raise the bank’s benchmark interest rate to curtail rising prices for consumer goods. 

The Federal Reserve is not expected to immediately increase its interest rate, which it has held at near zero percent since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020. 

But the policymakers could indicate whether they plan to raise the rate in March, perhaps by a quarter-percentage point, as hinted previously, and how many more times they might do so again throughout 2022. 

Their goal in raising the interest rate, perhaps four times this year, is to curb consumer demand and, correspondingly, curtail inflation. The annual inflation rate stood at 7% in December, the biggest surge in U.S. consumer prices in four decades. 

The Fed’s benchmark rate plays a key role in the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, because it influences the cost of borrowing for consumers when they buy such big-ticket items as cars and houses and for businesses for the machinery and goods they need to operate. 

The Fed policymakers are also weighing when to end the central bank’s direct support of the U.S. economy, which has recovered faster from the pandemic than economists had once predicted.

The unemployment rate dipped to 3.9% in December, not far above the five-decade low of 3.5% recorded before the coronavirus swept into the country. At its peak, in April 2020, the jobless rate was 14.7%. 

The prospect of higher interest rates in 2022, even though predicted for months, has frightened investors throughout January, with one broad U.S. stock index, the S&P 500, plunging about 8% from a record high at the beginning of the month. 

As a result, some financial analysts say they are hoping the Fed will give some clarity about its plans for the rest of the year. Policymakers are already slowing a bond purchase program they had been using to boost the economy. 

Ahead of the Fed meeting, Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst, suggested in a statement that “the initial interest rate hike from the Federal Reserve could come in March. But could it be a larger, half-point hike? If there is any likelihood of that happening, this is the meeting where the Fed needs to begin prepping markets for that possibility.” 

“Mortgage rates (for homebuyers) have surged since the beginning of the year as the outlook takes shape for interest rate hikes that are sooner and faster than previously expected,” he said. “Mortgage rates are still well below 4% but in an environment of already sky-high home prices, more would-be home buyers are priced out of the market with each move higher in mortgage rates.” 

 

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Reports: Liberal US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to Retire

U.S. media reports say Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, for 27 years a staunch liberal voice on the country’s highest court, has decided to retire, handing President Joe Biden his first chance at filling an open seat after former President Donald Trump appointed three conservatives that tipped the court’s ideological balance sharply to the right. 

The 83-year-old Breyer, according to news accounts in Washington, plans to remain on the court through the end of the court’s current term in June, or until a replacement is named by Biden and confirmed by the politically divided Senate. 

Biden, unlike Trump when he ran for the presidency in 2016 and for re-election in 2020, has not released a list of judges he might consider for appointment to the nine-member Supreme Court.

But Biden, during his run for the presidency, has said he would name the court’s first Black woman, following his selection of then-Senator Kamala Harris, of Jamaican and South Asian descent, as his vice president. 

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California Hotels Use Robots to Do Service Jobs

The current difficulty in filling many service jobs in the U.S. is leaving hotels scrambling to provide room service. But with a bit of ingenuity and a little high-tech help some American hotels are finding a way. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

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Supreme Court to Revisit Affirmative Action as Conservative Majority Flexes Muscle

The Supreme Court this week announced that it would hear two cases challenging the practice by some U.S. universities of using the race of an applicant as one of the factors that affect admissions.

The announcement, six years after the court upheld the use of affirmative action in a case involving the University of Texas at Austin, is another signal that the high court’s new conservative majority is willing to wade into thorny issues on the fault lines of U.S. politics. 

The court said it would combine two cases — one brought against Harvard University and another against the University of North Carolina. The central question identified by the court in both cases is whether it should overturn its own ruling from 2003 in the case Grutter v. Bollinger, which the court upheld in 2016, that allowed universities to use race as a factor in admissions decisions. 

Both cases were brought by an organization called Students for Fair Admissions. In a statement, the group’s president, Edward Blum, said, “In a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation like ours, the college admissions bar cannot be raised for some races and ethnic groups but lowered for others. Our nation cannot remedy past discrimination and racial preferences with new discrimination and different racial preferences.” 

Blum’s organization claims that Harvard and the University of North Carolina effectively discriminate against Asian American and white students to the extent that they give any preference to members of other groups, notably African Americans, when making admissions decisions.

The Harvard case comes to the Supreme Court on appeal from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, which found that the university’s admissions system, while “not perfect,” was not racially discriminatory. 

 

‘Merit’ v. ‘accidents of life’ 

Supporters of affirmative action point out that many of the factors typically considered “merit” by advocates of completely race-blind admissions cannot be reliably disentangled from privilege. Do students who achieve excellent grades and test scores with the aid of college-educated parents, or of tutors hired by their parents, truly exhibit more merit than students who achieved slightly lower marks without any outside assistance?

“Those built-in advantages ought to not count as merit. Those aren’t merit,” said Michael A. Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law (Emeritus) at the University of Houston Law Center. 

“Those are accidents of life,” Olivas told VOA. “Children can take advantage of opportunities, but the opportunity structures are unequally distributed in our society, and higher education is probably the best manifestation of that.” 

The current college admission system may be imperfect, Olivas said. However, he added, “As (Former British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill once said of democracy, I think it’s the worst of all systems, except for the alternatives. What would you substitute in the alternative?” 

 

Multiple flashpoints 

The court’s decision to take on an affirmative action case creates another potential flashpoint in the so-called “culture wars” that dominate political discourse in the United States.

So far this term, the court has heard arguments in an abortion case that many experts believe will lead to the overturning or gutting of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which determined that states are not allowed to outlaw access to abortion services

The court has also heard arguments in a controversial gun rights case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc., v. Bruen, which could result in the invalidation of numerous state-level gun laws that restrict the ability of individuals to carry firearms outside of their homes. 

Decisions in the abortion and gun rights cases are expected in the coming months. The affirmative action case will not be heard until the court’s next term begins in October. 

The court has already ruled on some controversial cases during its current term.

Earlier this month, it blocked the Biden administration’s effort to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 or have a masking and testing policy.

Last August, the court required the Biden administration to reinstitute the controversial Remain in Mexico program initiated by the Trump administration, which required asylum-seekers stopped at the southern border to remain outside U.S. territory while their applications are processed.

 

Energized conservative majority 

Because former President Donald Trump was able to appoint three new members to the court during his four years in office, the ideological makeup of the court shifted dramatically in a short time. The 5-4 conservative majority that existed during former President Barack Obama’s final term in office often produced rulings friendly to the political left, when a centrist conservative crossed over to vote with the court’s liberal bloc, including a landmark 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. 

However, the court is now solidly conservative by a margin of 6-3. 

“You have a very strong working majority of conservative voices in the court now,” said Frederick M. Lawrence, a distinguished lecturer at Georgetown Law Center and the former president of Brandeis University. “By any objective measure, this is the most conservative court in the country in roughly a century.” 

Lawrence said it would not be unreasonable to expect the court to begin revisiting many decisions made by previous incarnations of the court which American conservatives have long opposed.

“There are at least some justices of that conservative group who have very strong views about what the law ought to be, what the court has done over the past quarter-century or half-century, and what they’re trying to roll back,” he told VOA. 

While liberal groups brace for likely defeats, setbacks and reversals, conservatives are eager to continue advancing legal cases that could draw the high court’s attention and, they hope, result in sweeping decisions favorable to their side. 

 

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Energy Contingency Plan in Motion Amid Russia-Ukraine Crisis 

The Biden administration has been working with European countries and energy producers around the world on ways to supply fuel to Western European countries should Russian President Vladimir Putin slash oil and gas exports in retaliation for sanctions imposed for an invasion of Ukraine. 

“We’ve been working to identify additional volumes of non-Russian natural gas from various areas of the world from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States,” a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. 

The contingency plan is aimed to reassure European allies concerned about the impact of Russia weaponizing its energy supply. Moscow provides approximately 40% of Europe’s natural gas, and European energy stockpiles have been significantly lower in the past few months because of reduced Russian supplies. 

A second senior administration official underscored that oil and gas exports make up about half of Russia’s federal budget revenues, which means that Moscow is just as dependent on its energy revenue as Europe is on its supply. 

“If Russia decides to weaponize its supply of natural gas or crude oil, it wouldn’t be without consequences to the Russian economy,” the official said. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to confirm reporting that Qatar is one of the countries that the U.S. and European allies are turning to.

“Our approach is not about any one country or any individual entity,” she said while briefing reporters Tuesday, adding that the administration is engaging with major buyers and suppliers of liquefied natural gas to ensure flexibility in existing contracts to enable diversion to Europe if needed. 

President Joe Biden is set to meet with Amir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar at the White House on January 31. According to the White House, ensuring the stability of global energy supplies will be one of the topics discussed by the leaders. 

While having a contingency plan is important, analysts say it won’t be easy to substitute for existing infrastructure, particularly under the current global supply chain crisis. 

“Think of a gas pipeline as a faucet. … It’s super-efficient,” said Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Berzina told VOA that a contingency plan would be “more of a bucket than it is a faucet.” 

US-Europe unity 

On Monday, Biden said there was total unity among Western powers on the issue of Russia’s pressure on Ukraine. 

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters shortly after a videoconference with European leaders on the escalating Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Some analysts, however, say Biden maybe overplaying talk of unity. 

“In Europe, people are not as gung-ho and trigger-happy as they are here in the United States,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School, in New York. 

For months, the U.S. and European allies have warned of swift and severe economic consequences if Putin invades Ukraine. But some European allies have been nervous about the impact on their economies, including on the supply of Russian natural gas — particularly during the winter months. 

Germany is especially reliant on Russian energy. Berlin has remained ambiguous about whether in the event of war it is prepared to shut down the just-completed Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which will pump natural gas from Russia to Germany. 

“Despite all this conversation of the united West over Russia, it’s not as united,” Khrushcheva said. “And Putin knows that.” 

On Tuesday, Biden reiterated his position. “I made it clear to Putin early on if he went into Ukraine there would be consequences,” he said.

But analysts say that in moving forward with his harsh rhetoric on Russian sanctions, Biden needs to be mindful of the political calculation for European leaders. 

“The Western European population isn’t necessarily willing to suffer for Ukraine,” Berzina said. 

On Monday, the U.S. put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, amid escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed 127,000 troops, according to U.S. and Ukrainian estimates. 

The Russian troop deployment is similar to Moscow’s move ahead of its 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which triggered a series of international sanctions against Moscow but ultimately failed to deter Putin’s land grab. 

“They have not only shown no signs of de-escalating — they are in fact adding more force capability,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about the Russian military buildup during a press briefing on Monday. 

Both countries stepped up their military preparations Tuesday, with Moscow conducting a series of military exercises and Washington delivering a fresh shipment of weapons to Ukraine. 

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Capsized Boat Found Near Florida; 39 People Missing

The U.S. Coast Guard searched on Tuesday for 39 people missing for several days after a boat believed to be used for human smuggling capsized off Florida’s coast en route from the Bahamas. 

A good Samaritan called the Coast Guard early Tuesday after rescuing a man clinging to the boat 72 kilometers (45 miles) east of Fort Pierce, the maritime security agency reported on Twitter.

The man said he was with a group of 39 others who left the island of Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday night. He said the boat capsized in severe weather and that no one was wearing life jackets. 

The Coast Guard is calling it a suspected human smuggling case. Officials said on Twitter that they are searching by air and sea over a roughly 218-kilometer (135-mile) area extending from Bimini to the Fort Pierce Inlet.

A cold front late Saturday brought rough weather to the Bimini area. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were 32 kph (20 mph) winds and fierce squalls of rain on Sunday into Monday.

Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a steppingstone to reach Florida and the United States. They typically try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the vessels are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. There have been thousands of deaths over the years. 

The Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas.

For the most part, the migrants are from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force has reported apprehending migrants from other parts of the world, including from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month. 

On Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians in an overloaded sail freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas. 

“Navigating the Florida straits, Windward and Mona Passages … is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said in a statement last weekend. 

Last July, the Coast Guard rescued 13 people after their boat capsized off Key West as Tropical Storm Elsa approached.

The survivors said they had left Cuba with 22 people aboard. Nine went missing in the water. 

 

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Biden Says He Is Open to Sanctioning Putin Personally if Russia Invades Ukraine

Russia says it is watching “with great concern” a U.S. move to put 8,500 troops on alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, amid fears a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. As VOA’s senior diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports, diplomatic efforts continue as the U.S. and NATO boost their military deterrence.

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US Schools in Desperate Need of Substitute Teachers

Schools in the United States are struggling to reopen and stay open for in-person classes amid coronavirus outbreaks.

Substitute teachers help fill the gaps when teachers are ill or on personal leave. The problem is that there aren’t enough substitutes – who usually work as needed for low pay.

So school districts are using innovative ways to find other subs and have expanded their pool of candidates to include parents, school bus drivers and even members of the military. 

“It’s been tough to hire subs,” said Jean Consolla, principal at Mount Eagle Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia. 

“I had a teacher about to go on maternity leave, and I’m wondering how to cover the time she is gone.” 

“Then it occurred to me: What about using my son, Julian, who will be on a college break, as a substitute teacher? He has a positive attitude, likes to work with kids, and can make some money.” 

Julian Consolla, 20, is majoring in sports administration. Having completed the required 30 hours of college credits needed to become a sub in Virginia, he thought it would be a good opportunity.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking at first, but after I got used to the routine, it got easier and was fun,” he told VOA.

At another school in Fairfax County, McNair Upper Elementary, Sophie Carter is also a college student and substitute teacher. 

Since her major is elementary education, she considers this an ideal job,  

 

“I’m getting classroom management skills, and hopefully I’m making the environment fun and engaging in the classroom. This has strengthened my love for teaching.”

Principal Melissa Goddin wishes more college students like Carter would apply since substitute teachers are so hard to come by. 

“There are a lot of job opportunities in this area. We’re competing with places that allow people to work from home who want to avoid the possibility of being exposed to the virus at school.” 

The situation is similar in Ohio.

“I think people don’t want to expose themselves to the virus if they don’t have to,” said Dawn Gould, community relations coordinator at Kings Local Schools in Kings Mills, Ohio.

“Our substitute fill-in rate was under 50% this week,” she said in an interview with VOA. “We had to close school one day recently because we were having a hard time filling the classrooms.”

A bachelor’s degree is usually required to be a sub in Ohio. But now, during the pandemic, that’s not necessary. 

“We’re hopeful we can get more parents to sub who may not have a degree,” she said. 

Schools in the western United States have also been calling for parents to help volunteer or substitute teach.

In California, the Palo Alto Unified School District is urging parents to volunteer with its “Together, Schools Stay Open” campaign. 

“We haven’t been fully staffed for months with enough teachers or substitute teachers,” said Don Austin, the district superintendent. “About 10% of our teachers are out every day.” 

Parent Jen Wiener answered the call for help. 

Having parents in the classroom “is not a quick fix” to the problem, she said. “But the kids need to be in school, so let’s encourage the parents to help out.”

A school district in Texas says it can get only half of the substitutes it needs.

“People are testing positive or they’ve been in close contact with someone who has symptoms, so they stay home,” said Tim Savoy, chief communications officer for the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, outside Austin.

“We reached out to parents as substitute teachers. Although they would usually need a certain number of college credits, the school principal can waive the requirement.”

The rules have also been relaxed in other states.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill that would temporarily “allow trusted staff members such as secretaries, paraprofessionals, and others to work as substitute teachers until the end of the current school year.”

School bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrative assistants who have a high school education can also be used, according to R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent for academic services at Novi Community School District.

“Our teachers provide lesson plans for the substitutes, who make sure the kids are looked after and safe,” he said.

But that’s disconcerting to Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators.

“It’s concerning that the standards are being lowered,” he said, “but understandably, districts are just trying to do anything to make sure that there’s some supervision in the classroom.” 

Due to “extreme staffing shortages,” New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is asking members of the National Guard to volunteer as substitute teachers. “Our schools are a critical source of stability for kids. We know they learn better in the classroom,” she said.

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State Department Releases Annual Trafficking in Persons Report

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated human trafficking, the U.S. State Department said in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report released Tuesday. 

“This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report sends a strong message to the world that global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and enduring discriminatory policies and practices, have a disproportionate effect on individuals already oppressed by other injustices,” U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the report’s introduction.

“These challenges further compound existing vulnerabilities to exploitation, including human trafficking,” he said. 

In the report, Blinken calls for other countries to join the United States to improve “our collective efforts to comprehensively address human trafficking.” 

He said doing so requires mitigating “harmful practices and policies that cause socioeconomic or political vulnerabilities that traffickers often prey on.” 

The report said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought “unprecedented repercussions for human rights and economic development globally, including in human trafficking.” 

“Governments across the world diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts, resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventative efforts, and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers,” the report said. 

The report explained that those involved in anti-trafficking efforts “found ways to adapt and forged new relationships to overcome the challenges.” It added that traffickers were also adept in altering their methods. 

Some specific cases mentioned in the report include examples in India and Nepal in which young poor girls left school to help support their families due to the pandemic’s economic impact. Some, the report said, were forced into marriage for money. 

The report cites incidents in the United States, the United Kingdom and Uruguay in which landlords forced female tenants who were economically hurt by the pandemic to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay rent. 

In Haiti, Niger and Mali, “gangs” working in camps for displaced people used lax security caused by the pandemic to force residents into sex-for-money acts. 

In Myanmar (formerly Burma), which has been roiled by COVID-19 and political unrest, the report said 94% of households saw a decline in income, leaving some members vulnerable to sex trafficking. 

“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” Kari Johnstone, senior official and principal deputy director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said in the report’s introduction.

“The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalize on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts has resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve,” Johnstone said. 

 

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US Warns Russia Economic Sanctions Would Be Sharper Than in 2014

The United States warned Russia Tuesday that it would face faster and far more severe economic consequences if it invades Ukraine than it did when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” a national security official told reporters in Washington. “That means the gradualism of the past is out. And this time, we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.”

The official, speaking anonymously, said the U.S. is “also prepared to impose novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy.

“You can think of these export controls as trade restrictions in the service of broader U.S. national security interests,” the official said.

“We use them to prohibit the export of products from Russia,” the official said. “And given the reason they work is if you … step back and look at the global dominance of U.S.-origin software technology, the export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard, and it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.”

The U.S. and its allies imposed less severe economic sanctions against Moscow after its Crimean takeover, but they ultimately proved ineffective, and the peninsula remains under Russian control.

The U.S. is also working with energy producers around the world, another security official said, to supply fuel to Western European countries in the event Putin cuts off Russia’s flow of natural gas to the West.

One of the U.S. security officials echoed President Joe Biden in saying that the U.S. and its Western allies are “unified in our intention to impose massive consequences that would deliver a severe and immediate blow to Russia over time, make its economy even more brittle and undercut Putin’s aspirations to exert influence on the world stage.”

Tuesday’s White House warning came as Russia said it is watching “with great concern” as the U.S. on Monday put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated to reporters Russian accusations that the United States is escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops. 

 

Biden met virtually Monday with key European leaders to discuss the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters after hosting a secure video call with allied leaders from Europe, the European Union and NATO.  

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office released a statement that supported Biden’s summation, saying, “The leaders agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility.” 

Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the United States has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force if Russia invades Ukraine.  

“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.” 

Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine if Russia invades the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow.  

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COVID Cases Surge Among US Children as Omicron Sweeps America

In mid-January the average number of daily new COVID cases in the U.S. fluctuated between 750,000 and 800,000, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker. Children under five remain one of the most vulnerable groups since they cannot be vaccinated yet. In the first week of January, over half a million young children were diagnosed with COVID-19, an 80% increase compared to late December 2021. Mariia Prus has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Video editor – Kim Weeks.

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Delay in Creating New US Cybersecurity Board Prompts Concern

It’s a key part of President Joe Biden’s plans to fight major ransomware attacks and digital espionage campaigns: creating a board of experts that would investigate major incidents to see what went wrong and try to prevent the problems from happening again — much like a transportation safety board does with plane crashes.

But eight months after Biden signed an executive order creating the Cyber Safety Review Board it still hasn’t been set up. That means critical tasks haven’t been completed, including an investigation of the massive SolarWinds espionage campaign first discovered more than a year ago. Russian hackers stole data from several federal agencies and private companies.

Some supporters of the new board say the delay could hurt national security and comes amid growing concerns of a potential conflict with Russia over Ukraine that could involve nation-state cyberattacks. The FBI and other federal agencies recently released an advisory — aimed particularly at critical infrastructure like utilities — on Russian state hackers’ methods and techniques.

“We will never get ahead of these threats if it takes us nearly a year to simply organize a group to investigate major breaches like SolarWinds,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Such a delay is detrimental to our national security and I urge the administration to expedite its process.”

Biden’s order, signed in May, gives the board 90 days to investigate the SolarWinds hack once it’s established. But there’s no timeline for creating the board itself, a job designated to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, DHS said in a statement it was far along in setting it up and anticipated a “near-term announcement,” but did not address why the process has taken so long.

Scott Shackelford, the cybersecurity program chair at Indiana University and an advocate for creating a cyber review board, said having a rigorous study about what happened in a past hack like SolarWinds is a way of helping prevent similar attacks.

“It sure is taking, my goodness, quite a while to get it going,” Shackelford said. “It’s certainly past time where we could see some positive benefits from having it stood up.”

The Biden administration has made improving cybersecurity a top priority and taken steps to bolster defenses, but this is not the first time lawmakers have been unhappy with the pace of progress. Last year several lawmakers complained it took the administration too long to name a national cyber director, a new position created by Congress.

The SolarWinds hack exploited vulnerabilities in the software supply-chain system and went undetected for most of 2020 despite compromises at a broad swath of federal agencies and dozens of companies, primarily telecommunications and information technology providers. The hacking campaign is named SolarWinds after the U.S. software company whose product was exploited in the first-stage infection of that effort.

The hack highlighted the Russians’ skill at getting to high-level targets. The AP previously reported that SolarWinds hackers had gained access to emails belonging to the then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

The Biden administration has kept many of the details about the cyberespionage campaign hidden.

 

The Justice Department, for instance, said in July that 27 U.S. attorney offices around the country had at least one employee’s email account compromised during the hacking campaign. It did not provide details about what kind of information was taken and what impact such a hack may have had on ongoing cases.

The New York-based staff of the DOJ Antitrust Division also had files stolen by the SolarWinds hackers, according to one former senior official briefed on the hack who was not authorized to speak about it publicly and requested anonymity. That breach has not previously been reported. The Antitrust Division investigates private companies and has access to highly sensitive corporate data.

The federal government has undertaken reviews of the SolarWinds hack. The Government Accountability Office issued a report this month on the SolarWinds hack and another major hacking incident that found there was sometimes a slow and difficult process for sharing information between government agencies and the private sector, The National Security Council also conducted a review of the SolarWinds hack last year, according to the GAO report.

But having the new board conduct an independent, thorough examination of the SolarWinds hack could identify inconspicuous security gaps and issues that others may have missed, said Christopher Hart, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman who has advocated for the creation of a cyber review board.

“Most of the crashes that the NTSB really goes after … are ones that are a surprise even to the security experts,” Hart said. “They weren’t really obvious things, they were things that really took some deep digging to figure out what went wrong.”

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Report: Anti-corruption Fight Is Stalled, COVID Not Helping

Most countries have made little to no progress in bringing down corruption levels over the past decade, and authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic in many places has weighed on accountability, a closely watched study by an anti-graft organization found Tuesday.

Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perception of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, found that “increasingly, rights and checks and balances are being undermined not only in countries with systemic corruption and weak institutions, but also among established democracies.”

Among other issues over the past year, it cited the use of Pegasus software, which has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians across the globe.

The report said the pandemic has “been used in many countries as an excuse to curtail basic freedoms and sidestep important checks and balances.”

In Western Europe, the best-scoring region overall, the pandemic has given countries “an excuse for complacency in anti-corruption efforts as accountability and transparency measures are neglected or even rolled back,” Transparency said. In some Asian countries, it said, COVID-19 “also has been used as an excuse to suppress criticism.” It pointed to increased digital surveillance in some nations and authoritarian approaches in others.

The report ranks countries on a scale from a “highly corrupt” 0 to a “very clean” 100. Denmark, New Zealand and Finland tied for first place with 88 points each; the first two were unchanged, while Finland gained three points. Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany completed the top 10. The U.K. was 11th with 78.

The United States, which slipped over recent years to hit 67 points in 2020, held that score this time but slipped a couple of places to 27th. Transparency said it dropped out of the top 25 for the first time “as it faces continuous attacks on free and fair elections and an opaque campaign finance system.”

Canada, which slid three points to 74 and two places to 13th, “is seeing increased risks of bribery and corruption in business,” the group said. It added that the publication of the Pandora Papers showed Canada as “a hub for illicit financial flows, fueling transnational corruption across the region and the world.”

The index rates 180 countries and territories. South Sudan was bottom with 11 points; Somalia, with which it shared last place in 2020, tied this time with Syria for second-to-last with 13. Venezuela followed with 14 — then Yemen, North Korea and Afghanistan tied with 16 apiece.

Transparency said the control of corruption has stagnated or worsened in 86% of the countries it surveyed in the last 10 years. In that time, 23 countries — including the U.S., Canada, Hungary and Poland — have declined significantly in its index, while 25 have improved significantly. They include Estonia, the Seychelles and Armenia.

Compiled since 1995, the index is calculated using 13 different data sources that provide perceptions of public sector corruption from business people and country experts. Sources include the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and private risk and consulting companies.

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Guinea, Vanuatu Have UN Vote Restored After Paying Dues 

Guinea and Vanuatu had their ability to vote at the United Nations restored on Monday, having been denied the right at the beginning of the month over their failure to pay their dues to the world body, a UN spokeswoman said. 

“The General Assembly took note that Guinea, Iran and Vanuatu have made the payments necessary to reduce their arrears below the amounts specified in Article 19 of the Charter,” U.N. spokeswoman Paulina Kubiak said. 

“This means that they can resume voting in the General Assembly,” she said. 

Under Article 19, any country can have their voting rights in the General Assembly suspended if their payment arrears are equal to or greater than the contribution due for the past two full years. 

The payment Friday of more than $18 million by Iran, via an account in Seoul and most likely with the approval of the United States, which has imposed heavy financial sanctions on Tehran, had been announced at the end of last week by UN sources and confirmed by South Korea.

For their part, Guinea had to pay at least $40,000 and Vanuatu at least $194 to recover their right to vote.

Kubiak later added three other countries that lost their U.N. voting rights in early January had also recovered them after paying the minimum arrears required last week. 

Those countries were Sudan, which had to pay about $300,000, Antigua and Barbuda, which owed some $37,000 and Congo-Brazzaville, with around $73,000 in arrears, said the spokeswoman. 

On the other hand, Venezuela, which is facing a minimum payment of nearly $40 million, and Papua New Guinea, which must pay just over $13,000, remain deprived of the right to vote, according to the U.N.

They are the only two countries out of the 193 members of the United Nations that will not be able to participate in votes this year.

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