European Union leaders are in Beijing Thursday for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders.
Ahead of the meetings, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the two sides would discuss “how to rebalance our economic relationship,” highlighting China’s position as the EU’s “most important trading partner,” and stressing the need to address the trade imbalance between them.
Von der Leyen said the meetings would also include discussion of cooperation on climate change and on rules for artificial intelligence.
She also highlighted a need for the EU and China to use their roles as major world powers to respond to the war in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We have a shared interest in peace and security and the effective functioning of the rules-based international order and to find solutions to global challenges,” Von der Leyen said. “This is why it is essential to put an end to the Russian aggression against Ukraine and establish a just and lasting peace consistent with the U.N. charter and in the same vein to do everything possible to work for a two-state solution in the Middle East.”
Xi said in his opening remarks that China and the European Union must “work together to promote world stability and prosperity.”
“China and the EU should be partners in mutually beneficial cooperation and continuously enhance political mutual trust,” Xi said.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday met virtually with leaders from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, telling them that Moscow is counting on Western unity to “collapse” next year.
Attendees, including Kyiv’s key allies such as U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. leader Rishi Sunak, said they remained committed to supporting Ukraine. Their comments came amid fears that Western support for Ukraine could wane as Kyiv makes limited progress on the battlefield.
“We are determined to support an independent, democratic Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders,” leaders of the G7 said in a statement after the meeting.
The leaders announced actions to be taken against Russia, including banning imports of nonindustrial diamonds from Russia by January, and Russian diamonds processed by third countries by March, in an effort to decrease Russian revenue.
The G7 announced additional measures, including increased enforcement of a price cap on Russian oil, and called on all third parties to immediately stop providing Russia with military materials or face a “severe cost.”
The leaders also committed to increasing humanitarian efforts for Ukraine as winter approaches, calling on Russia to end its aggression and pay for the damage it has already done.
As Zelenskyy met with G7 leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a rare trip abroad — a one-day visit to the Middle East with stops in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — to try to increase Russia’s standing in the region.
The UAE, host country of COP28, the U.N. climate summit, is a U.S. ally with close ties to Russia. UAE officials greeted Putin warmly in Abu Dhabi.
Putin also met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, discussing many topics, including what he called the “Ukrainian crisis,” before continuing on to talks with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Those talks were also expected to include Ukraine.
Ukrainians in the UAE for COP28 condemned Putin’s visit to the region, citing environmental crimes Russia has committed in their country.
“It is extremely upsetting to see how the world treats war criminals, because that’s what he is, in my opinion,” said Marharyta Bohdanova, a worker at the Ukrainian pavilion at the COP28 climate summit. “Seeing how people let people like him in the big events … treating him like a dear guest, is just so hypocritical, in my opinion.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff on Wednesday said he wanted to arrange a meeting between the Ukrainian and Hungarian leaders amid Budapest’s opposition to a proposal to start talks on European Union membership for Kyiv.
Andriy Yermak said he had spoken to Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto about a possible meeting between Zelenskyy and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – after Orban and his party publicly opposed starting membership talks.
Yermak, writing on Telegram, said the two had agreed “to work on setting a suitable date for such a meeting.”
Unanimous approval at an EU summit next week is needed to proceed with membership talks for Ukraine and Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as recommended by the European Commission. Kyiv sees EU membership as a key step, 21 months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of moving closer to the West.
Yermak, currently in Washington with a Ukrainian delegation discussing U.S. aid to Kyiv, said Ukraine “was counting on a positive decision” from the EU meeting.
He said lawmakers in Kyiv would consider in the coming days legislation critical to Ukraine’s membership bid. “We are fulfilling our obligations in full,” Yermak wrote.
Orban has warned that EU leaders could fail to reach a consensus on starting membership talks with Ukraine and said the issue should not be put on the summit’s agenda.
Distrust of Orban is high in Brussels after run-ins during his 13 years in power over the rights of gay people and migrants and tighter state controls over academics, the courts and media. Billions of euros of EU funds for Hungary have been frozen.
A parliamentary resolution from his ruling Fidesz party on Monday said EU expansion “should remain an objective process based on rules and performance.
“The start of membership talks with Ukraine should be based on a consensus among European Union member states… The conditions for this are not present today.”
Fidesz said EU leaders should thoroughly assess how Ukraine’s possible membership would affect cohesion and agricultural policies within the bloc, of which the EU’s poorer members, including Hungary, are among the main beneficiaries.
An inflow of Ukrainian grains into the EU triggered protests from farmers in Eastern Europe last year, while Polish truckers have blockaded border crossings with Ukraine, calling on the EU to restore permits limiting transit for Ukrainian competitors.
Orban will meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Thursday, ahead of the summit, his press chief said.
“Orban has committed to a very public strategy of creating chaos and panic ahead of the EU Council Summit. The spectacle he is producing is designed to create stress and maximize his leverage before EU leaders meet,” said Roger Hilton, a research fellow at GLOBSEC, a think tank.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was prevented from leaving the country last week, with the SBU security service saying Russia intended to exploit a meeting he had planned with Orban to hurt Kyiv’s interests.
The United States is charging four Russian-affiliated soldiers with war crimes for what American prosecutors describe as the heinous abuse of a U.S. citizen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.
The charges – the first ever filed by the U.S. under its nearly 30-year-old war crimes statute – include conspiracy to commit war crimes, unlawful confinement, torture, and inhumane treatment, following the takeover of the village of Mylove, in the Kherson oblast of southern Ukraine in April 2022.
“As the world has witnessed the horrors of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, so has the United States Department of Justice,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.
“The Justice Department and the American people have a long memory,” he added. “We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine, and we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice.”
According to the nine-page indictment, the perpetrators include Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, described as commanding officers with either the Russian Armed Forces or the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
Two other soldiers named in the indictment – Valerii and Nazar – are identified only by their first names.
Garland and other U.S. officials said Wednesday the victim was a non-combatant living with his Ukrainian wife in Mylove when the four Russians kidnapped him from his home.
They allegedly then stripped him naked, tied his hands behind his back, put a gun to his head, and beat him, before taking him to an improvised Russian military compound.
The indictment states the victim was then taken to an improvised jail where he was subject to multiple interrogations and “acts specifically intended to inflict severe and serious physical and mental pain and suffering.”
Additionally, the indictment alleges at least one of the Russian soldiers sexually assaulted the victim, and that the Russians carried out a mock execution.
“They moved the gun just before pulling the trigger, and the bullet went just past his head,” Garland said. “After the mock execution, the victim was beaten and interrogated again.”
The victim was also forced to perform manual labor, such as digging trenches for Russian forces, until he was finally released after a little over a week in detention.
U.S. officials said the charges against the four Russian-affiliated soldiers stem from an investigation that started in August 2022, when investigators with the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland security traveled to meet with the victim after he had been evacuated from Ukraine.
They said evidence was also collected in collaboration with Ukrainian officials.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday investigators also met with members of the victim’s family and with multiple witnesses who were able to confirm Russian forces occupied the village of Mylove and the surrounding areas during the time the alleged war crimes took place.
“We cannot allow such horrific crimes to be ignored. To do so would only increase the risk they will be repeated,” Mayorkas said.
“As today’s announcement makes clear, when an American citizen’s human rights are violated, their government will spare no effort and spare no resources to bring the perpetrators to justice,” he added.
VOA contacted the Russian Embassy in Washington for comment about the charges. Embassy officials have yet to respond.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, indicated that while the war crimes charges announced on Wednesday are the first, they likely will not be the last.
“You should expect more,” Garland told reporters. “I can’t get into too many details.”
Italy officially told China that it will leave the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, the first country to do so since the project was launched a decade ago. Despite the decision, Rome still plans to maintain good relations with Beijing, government sources said on Wednesday.
Beijing launched the BRI, a global infrastructure and transportation plan, in 2013, aiming to boost connectivity between China and nations in Eurasia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America. Critics argue that one key goal, though, is to expand the influence of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly 150 countries, or about 75% of the global population, have joined.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been critical of the partnership, once calling the 2019 decision to join the BRI a “serious mistake.” After Meloni took office last year, she said the economic promise of the deal had never materialized.
The agreement, which is good through March 2024, will not be renewed, sources in her coalition said.
“We have every intention of maintaining excellent relations with China even if we are no longer part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” one official told Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the exit was orchestrated in such a way as to “keep channels of political dialogue open,” but wouldn’t elaborate.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which broke the news, reported that Rome’s intention to leave the BRI was communicated to Beijing earlier in the week.
Some experts think the timing of the notification could have been intentional. China is set to host a summit with European Union officials on Thursday. The talks will span a number of intricate issues, including trade deficits and technology.
“Perhaps there was an agreement with the EU leaders that Italy would notify China before the EU meeting so that this [withdrawal] wouldn’t lead to any misunderstandings,” said Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based columnist for SettimanaNews, an Italian news outlet.
When Italy became a BRI member nation four years ago, then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had high hopes for booming trade. But China has since raked in most of the profits.
Annual Chinese exports to Italy nearly doubled from $34 billion in 2019 to $62 billion today. During that same period, Italian exports to China rose modestly from $14 billion to $17.7 billion.
Italy, which will host a meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, or G7, in 2024 and serve as rotating president next year, is the only major Western power to have signed onto the pact. This came, despite the United States’ caution that China might gain undue control over technology and infrastructure.
“Italy joining the BRI in 2019 sent the wrong message to other EU and NATO members,” Sisci told VOA. Meloni’s government, he said, is now signaling that “it is back in line with its partners and allies.”
Meloni, a standard-bearer for right-wing populism in Europe, has been eager to show the world that Italy stands with NATO. In June, her Cabinet limited the power Chinese shareholder Sinochem had over the Italian tire company Pirelli. According to a government source, she promised U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this year that Italy would back out of the BRI.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani flew to Beijing in September on a diplomatic mission, and President Sergio Mattarella is expected to visit China in 2024. Meloni has said she also wants to visit Beijing.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his handling of COVID-19 on Wednesday at a public inquiry into the pandemic, saying his government “got some things wrong” but did its best.
Johnson began two days of questioning under oath by lawyers for the judge-led inquiry about his initial reluctance to impose a national lockdown in early 2020 and other fateful decisions.
Johnson opened his testimony with an apology “for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the COVID victims,” though not for any of his own actions. Four people stood up in court as he spoke, holding signs saying: “The Dead can’t hear your apologies,” before being escorted out by security staff.
“Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes,” Johnson said. “Inevitably, we got some things wrong. I think we were doing our best at the time.”
Johnson had arrived at the inquiry venue at daybreak, several hours before he was due to take the stand, avoiding a protest by relatives of some of those victims.
Among those wanting answers from the inquiry are families of some of the more than 230,000 people in the U.K. who died after contracting the virus. A group gathered outside the office building where the inquiry was set, some holding pictures of their loved ones. A banner declared: “Let the bodies pile high” — a statement attributed to Johnson by an aide. Another sign said: “Johnson partied while people died.”
Johnson was pushed out of office by his own Conservative Party in mid-2022 after multiple ethics scandals, including the revelation that he and staff members held parties in the prime minister’s Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021, flouting the government’s lockdown restrictions.
Former colleagues, aides and advisers have painted an unflattering picture of Johnson and his government over weeks of testimony.
Former Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said Johnson was “bamboozled” by science. In diaries that have been seen as evidence, Vallance also said Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate.” Former adviser Dominic Cummings, now a fierce opponent of Johnson, said the then-prime minister asked scientists whether blowing a hair dryer up his nose could kill the virus.
Former senior civil servant Helen McNamara described a “toxic,” macho culture inside Johnson’s government, and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the country’s top civil servant, called Johnson and his inner circle “basically feral.”
Johnson defended his government, saying it contained “challenging” characters “whose views about each other might not be fit to print, but who got an awful lot done.”
The U.K. has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
Johnson said he was “not sure” whether his government’s decisions had caused excess deaths. He said deciding when to impose lockdowns and other restrictions had been “painful.”
“People point, quite rightly, to the loss of education, the economic damage, the missed cancer and cardiac appointments, and all the other costs,” he said. “When it came to the balance of the need to protect the public and protect the (health service), and the damage done by lockdowns, it was incredibly difficult.”
Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families. The probe, led by retired Judge Heather Hallett, is expected to take three years to complete, though interim reports will be issued starting next year.
The inquiry is divided into four sections, with the current phase focusing on political decision-making. The first stage, which concluded in July, looked at the country’s preparedness for the pandemic.
Johnson has submitted a written evidence statement to the inquiry but has not handed over some 5,000 WhatsApp messages from several key weeks between February and June 2020. They were on a phone Johnson was told to stop using when it emerged that the number had been publicly available online for years. Johnson later said he’d forgotten the password to unlock it.
A Johnson spokesman said the former prime minister had not deleted any messages but a “technical issue” meant some had not been recovered.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to appear Wednesday before a virtual meeting of leaders from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations.
Zelenskyy will have the opportunity to brief the leaders on the situation in Ukraine nearly two years into a Russian invasion that prompted dozens of nations to provide military and humanitarian support for the Ukrainian side.
Wednesday’s meeting comes a day after Zelenskyy canceled a video appearance with members of the U.S. Senate where he was expected to advocate for continued military support.
“Zelenskyy, by the way, could not make it to — something happened at the last minute — to our briefing,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told a news conference.
Schumer said Zelenskyy had been invited to speak via video at a classified briefing so those at the meeting could “hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake” and help lawmakers vote on a bill that includes billions of dollars in new aid for Ukraine.
Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young warned in a letter to congressional leaders Monday that by the end of the year, the United States will no longer have the funds to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine “will not be able to keep fighting,” Young said, noting that the U.S. also has run out of money for propping up Ukraine’s economy.
“We’re running out of money, and we are nearly out of time,” U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. “A vote against supporting Ukraine is a vote to improve [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s strategic position.”
On the battlefield, Ukraine’s half-year-long counteroffensive has largely stalled against entrenched Russian forces, with only limited territorial gains in the eastern part of the country.
In October, the Biden administration asked Congress for nearly $106 billion to fund ambitious plans for Ukraine, Israel and U.S. border security.
But funding for Ukraine has become politically controversial, with some right-leaning lawmakers in the narrowly Republican-controlled House of Representatives opposing further assistance, contending the aid is not in U.S. interests.
However, Young said in the letter released by the White House that cutting off funding and a flow of weapons to Ukraine would likely work to Russia’s advantage on the battlefield.
“I want to be clear: Without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine, to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks,” she wrote. “There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment.”
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
Millions around the world turn to Wikipedia when they want to better understand the world around them, and that apparently includes artificial intelligence — the most searched topic on the online encyclopedia in 2023.
“ChatGPT is one of the generative AI tools that is trained on Wikipedia data, pulling large amounts of content from Wikipedia projects to answer people’s questions,” says Anusha Alikhan, chief communications officer at the Wikimedia Foundation. “So, the fact that millions of people are going to Wikipedia to learn about ChatGPT is kind of an interesting twist.”
Wikipedia articles about ChatGPT garnered more than 79 million page views across all languages, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts and funds the site. The information found on Wikipedia is managed by volunteer editors around the world.
English-language Wikipedia drew more than 84 billion views in 2023, according to the nonprofit. The top five articles this year were ChatGPT; Deaths in 2023; 2023 World Cricket Cup; Indian Premier League; and the film “Oppenheimer.”
Cricket is a popular global sport, but this is the first time since Wikipedia started keeping track in 2015 that an article about the sport made the list.
The rest of the most popular topics in Wikipedia’s Top 25 include a couple of Indian movies, as well as the U.S. megahit film, “Barbie.” Two celebrities who died this year —Matthew Perry and Lisa Marie Presley — are on the list, as are two well-known people: singer Taylor Swift and businessman Elon Musk, who made headlines a lot this year. Sports events, the United States, and India also made the Top 25 list.
“It gives the world, in our opinion, a real deep dive into the topics that people were most interested in for the entire year,” Alikhan says. “We often say also that Wikipedia reflects the world.”
According to Wikipedia data, the top five countries that accessed the English Wikipedia in 2023 are the United States (33 billion page views); the United Kingdom (9 billion page views); India (8.48 million page views); Canada (3.95 billion page views); and Australia (2.56 billion page views).
Historical subjects that make the list are often connected to a current event, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb.
“The fact that number seven on the list is J. Robert Oppenheimer speaks to the fact that it was, of course, connected to the ‘Oppenheimer’ movie,” Alikhan says. “The article about him was also very highly trafficked, in addition to the film. So typically, if there’s a historical article in the Top 25, it’s because it was related to a current event.”
Top 25 English Wikipedia articles that received the most pageviews in 2023:
ChatGPT 49 million page views
Deaths in 2023 43 million
2023 Cricket World Cup 38 million
Indian Premier League 32 million
Oppenheimer (film) 28 million
Cricket World Cup 25.9 million
J. Robert Oppenheimer 25.6 million
Jawan (film) 22 million
2023 Indian Premier League 21 million
Pathaan (film) 19.9 million
The Last of Us (TV series) 19.7 million
Taylor Swift 19 million
Barbie (film) 18 million
Cristiano Ronaldo 17 million
Lionel Messi 16.62 million
Premier League 16.60 million
Matthew Perry 16.45 million
United States 16.24 million
Elon Musk 14.37 million
Avatar: The Way of Water (film) 14.30 million
India 13.8 million
Lisa Marie Presley 13.7 million
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (film) 13.3 million
Russian invasion of Ukraine 12.79 million
Andrew Tate 12.72 million
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Greece on Thursday for a summit with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The meeting comes after years of tensions that brought them to the brink of war. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.
Officials from the European Union and China will hold their first in-person summit since 2019 this week, with leaders from both sides expecting to exchange views on strategic and global economic issues.
Some experts say a focus of the one-day summit on December 7 will be “de-risking,” which relates to the EU’s current effort to reduce reliance on China in key sectors.
“Brussels wants to show that they have new policy tools to get serious with de-risking, while the key objective for China is to try to hinder the EU’s progress on implementing policies related to de-risking,” Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at the Brussels office of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, or MERICS, told VOA.
The summit comes amid a deepening rift between the two sides, as the EU hopes to level the playing field in trade while Beijing tries to highlight the need to maintain bilateral cooperation. It follows a series of high-level dialogues, including a visit to Beijing by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, in October.
With the EU and China both trying to safeguard their interests, some analysts say expectations for the summit’s outcome should be low.
“It’s like they are driving on two opposite lanes and there is very little common ground between both sides’ talking points,” Sari Arho Havrén, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told VOA by phone.
During a keynote speech at a conference in Berlin last month, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the need for the EU to investigate Beijing’s state subsidies for the electric vehicle industry. Carmakers in Europe have expressed concern over China’s abundant supply of subsized electric vehicles, which can be sold at cheaper prices in global markets.
“[The overcapacity] will worsen as China’s economy slows down, and its domestic demand does not pick up,” she said, adding that it would worsen distortion in the EU market, which Brussels couldn’t accept. “Europe is open for competition. Not for a race to the bottom.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, is calling for greater China-EU cooperation.
“China and the EU have different views on international and regional issues, and only by adhering to communication and coordination can we play a constructive role in maintaining world peace and stability and addressing global challenges,” he said during a meeting with EU diplomatic envoys on Monday.
Before the summit, China announced it would temporarily offer visa-free entry to citizens from five European countries — France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. Additionally, Lithuania said last week that Beijing had lifted trade barriers imposed on Lithuanian goods.
Stec from Merics said Beijing is trying to stabilize its relationship with the EU by adopting strategic stalling measures such as the visa-free entry, which he thinks is an attempt to divide EU member states.
“This is not a major concession made by China,” he told VOA, adding that domestic economic pressure is pushing Beijing to boost business exchanges and tourism with the EU. These measures, however, fail to address the EU’s fundamental concerns.
The bloc is also expected to highlight China’s more assertive military posture in the Indo-Pacific region, which von der Leyen said is affecting the EU’s global interests.
“We must also recognize that China’s views on the ‘global security architecture’ are not by default aligned with ours,” von der Leyen said. “Our own supply chains and trade routes are at stake.”
While the EU “must recognize that there is an explicit element of rivalry” in its relationship with China, von der Leyen said Brussels needs to ensure the rivalry is constructive rather than hostile. “Cooperation with China on global issues is possible and is happening,” she said.
But as China remains an important strategic partner for Russia in its war against Ukraine, the EU is expected to push Chinese leader Xi Jinping to act against 13 Chinese companies accused of bypassing sanctions on Russia, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
Since the EU views Beijing’s policies in several areas as harmful to the bloc’s interests, some analysts said von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will focus on defending Brussels’ interests at the summit.
“The EU feels that China is taking advantage of its openness, so it wants to prioritize addressing this problem rather than reaching consensus with Beijing on key global issues like climate change,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert on EU-China relations at the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, told VOA by phone.
During a daily press briefing Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China and the EU “are partners, not rivals” and that their common interests “far outweigh” their differences.
As it looks unlikely that the EU and China will produce substantial, concrete results through the summit, Stec thinks the general trend in EU-China relations is moving from setting up positive cooperation to damage control.
“The EU has been trying to address structural issues in its relationship with China for years, but there hasn’t been a big push to address those issues from the Chinese side,” he told VOA.
“If the Chinese side is not willing to budge now and start a constructive discussion, the current European Commission may decide to make more active use of defensive policy instruments the EU now has at its disposal.”
A man in Bosnia-Herzegovina killed his wife and streamed the murder live on Instagram. In neighboring Serbia, 27 women were killed in gender-based attacks this year, despite efforts to raise awareness and reverse the trend. Activists in Kosovo say violence against women there is a “national emergency.”
Throughout the western Balkans, women are harassed, raped, beaten and killed, often by their partners and after repeatedly reporting the violence to the authorities. The region is staunchly conservative, with a centuries-old tradition of male dominance, but the problem surged following the wars in the 1990s and the political, economic and social crises that have persisted since the conflicts ended.
In response, women’s groups in the region have organized protests to draw public attention and demand action. They have set up help lines and shelters for women. But activists blame authorities for not acting more decisively to protect women and counter a culture of impunity.
The public in Bosnia and the wider region was brutally shaken into reality in August, when a woman in the northeastern Bosnian town of Gradacac was shot in the head by her former partner, in a live video on Instagram.
The murder was “so gruesome and so tragic” that it was an “eye-opener,” said Jadranka Milicevic, from the Cure [Girls] group.
In the Western Balkans, most countries have passed laws and regulations to combat violence against women but implementation remains incoherent, activists say.
Bosnia, for example, was among the first countries to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women, but the problem has only grown since then, Milicevic said.
“Violence against women and domestic violence are a global phenomenon. They exist everywhere, but it is the state response to the violence that is the key issue,” said Vanja Macanovic, from the Autonomous Women’s Center in Serbia. “Unfortunately, what we see here [in the Balkans] is that violence is approved. It is a model of behavior that is not sufficiently condemned in public.”
“We have signed all relevant international declarations, resolutions and conventions but their application is questionable,” said Milicevic. “Too many people still perceive [domestic] violence as a private issue, a private matter between two people. They do not understand that it is a social problem.”
Observers cite Bosnia’s lenient sentences for violence and killing of women as one of the key problems. A 2022 report by GREVIO, an expert body monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, said such court practices feed a “sentiment of impunity” that is felt strongly by both the perpetrators and their victims.
Only once was a murderer sentenced to the 40-year maximum in a case where a woman was the victim, Milicevic said. A total of 65 women have been killed in the past 10 years and five have survived attempted murders in the country of 3.3 million people, local data shows.
The situation is similar in Kosovo, another highly patriarchal and male-oriented Balkan society. There, the rape last year of an 11-year-old girl by five assailants triggered street protests demanding safety for women, which led to the resignation of the police chief.
But protesters were out in the streets again later in 2022, angered by two killings in the capital Pristina. A 63-year-old geography teacher was killed by her ax-wielding husband, while a pregnant woman was tracked down outside a hospital by her husband, who killed her while she was waiting to give birth.
A total of 66 women have been killed by partners or husbands since 2000 in Kosovo, a nation of 2 million, while only one perpetrator has been sentenced to life in prison, official statistics show.
Serbian activist Macanovic believes part of the problem is that “institutions are not being held responsible” and there is no consequence for mistakes in handling the cases. This discourages women from turning to the state for help, especially in smaller communities, she added.
“We do not have a well-structured system of responsibility for every professional for wrongful action, or rather lack of action,” she said. It is rare for police officers, social services, prosecutors or court officials to be held to account if mistakes are made and a woman is later killed.
Faced with a surge in violence and killings of women, in 2017 Serbia began implementing a special law to deepen cooperation among agencies, take immediate measures against attackers and set up local working groups on the prevention of violence.
Serbia’s minister of human and minority rights, Tomislav Zigmanov, pledged further efforts at a recent meeting in the capital Belgrade marking a global campaign to fight violence against women. Zigmanov called for cooperation with grassroots organizations in preventing violence and monitoring the penal process.
“We must also have civic organizations as partners when it comes to creating a tolerant society of mutual respect and understanding,” he said.
In Kosovo, the Ministry of Justice was sending out text messages to warn against violence and urge women to report attacks. Top officials there have publicly called for tougher sentences for perpetrators and criticized past practices.
“We need the entire justice system to prioritize cases of violence against girls and women,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti said at a conference on Tuesday, titled, “United against violence — It’s enough!” Kurti cited “cases when criminals are released and the crimes are repeated even worse than the first time.”
Bosnia, too, passed a law on the prevention of domestic violence several years ago and authorities have promised to do more. But in the societies that went through wars, where economies and institutions have crumbled, and where ethnic, political and social divisions are often fueled by authorities rather than countered, legal changes alone are not enough, say experts.
Violence has persisted and will continue, believes Vesna Stanojevic, who runs a chain of safe houses for women in Serbia. “Sometimes we take in women who are beaten so hard that they cannot walk or move their head, who have come after being in a hospital, who are about to give birth, have stomach injuries,” she said.
“Where did they [attackers] learn that? Who are role models for our children”?” she asked. “We should educate and we [societies] obviously are not doing it.”
Currently, more than 40 women and children are staying in the shelters run by her organization, she said. “In my 32 years of work, I haven’t seen violence decline. … Sometimes there is more, sometimes less, but generally it is always there.”
In one of the shelters, a 26-year-old woman said in an interview she decided to leave her partner when she noticed bruises also on their baby son. The woman, who wouldn’t give her name for security reasons, said her partner repeatedly raped her, beat and choked her, and kept her and the baby locked in their flat for hours at a time.
Upon leaving, the woman ended up in a hospital with chest injuries and bruising. The man has now been detained. “The last [beating] was really bad,” she said. “I knew that if it happened again, neither I nor the baby would remain alive.”
The Netherlands returned six artefacts including a cannon, a ceremonial sword and two guns taken from Sri Lanka more than 250 years ago on Tuesday, as part of efforts by the former colonial power to redress historical wrongs, officials said.
Sri Lanka asked the Netherlands to return the artefacts after the Dutch government approved the restitution of historic objects in 2021.
The artefacts were taken in 1765 from Kandy, the last kingdom of ancient Sri Lanka, when the Dutch besieged the palace, a statement from the Netherlands embassy said.
“The objects were wrongfully brought to the Netherlands during the colonial period, acquired under duress or by looting,” it added.
Sri Lanka is grateful to the government and the people of the Netherlands for returning the artefacts, said Buddhasasana Religious and Cultural Affairs Minister Vidura Wickramanayake.
“There are more to come. Not only from the Netherlands but also from other countries like Great Britain. So we have already started negotiations and I hope they will be fruitful very soon,” he told reporters.
The artefacts will now be housed at the National Museum in Colombo and more are expected to follow.
“These objects represent an important cultural and historical value and they are back in Sri Lanka where they can be seen by the Sri Lankan public,” said Dewi Van de Weerd, Ambassador for International Cultural Cooperation.
“The value of returning these objects is important because it is about addressing historical injustices.”
The Netherlands returned over 300 artefacts to Indonesia earlier this year, according to its government.
Returning artefacts to former colonized countries is a long running and often sensitive issue.
A dispute between Britain and Greece over the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures, known as the Elgin marbles, escalated last month, with both sides blaming the other for the cancellation of a planned meeting between their two leaders.
Greece has repeatedly called on the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in Athens in 1806, during a period when Greece was under Ottoman Turkish rule.
Six Ukrainian children taken by Russia in the wake of Moscow’s invasion are to be reunited with family after Qatari mediation, officials from the Gulf state said Tuesday.
Russia has been accused of forcibly deporting thousands of Ukrainian children from schools, hospitals and orphanages in parts of the country controlled by its forces.
The children, aged between eight and 15, are a second group of minors to be returned via Qatar’s embassy in Moscow through a Doha-mediated deal between Russia and Ukraine which saw four returned in October.
Qatar had facilitated “the reunification of six additional Ukrainian children with their families in time for the festive holidays,” said Lolwah Al-Khater, Minister of State for International Cooperation.
“Both sides cooperated fully and engaged in good faith throughout the process, with Qatar serving as an intermediary,” she added.
Among the latest group is an 11-year-old boy whose mother, a Ukrainian soldier, is still being held in Russia. He has been handed into the custody of his aunt and is on his way to Ukraine via Moscow.
Another, an eight-year-old boy, had been with his grandmother in eastern Ukraine since March 2022, with Qatar negotiating a reunion with his mother in Russian-occupied Luhansk before the pair travelled on to Moscow.
All families have travelled together along the same route to Kyiv, via Moscow and Minsk with Qatari diplomats accompanying the children to the Ukrainian border where they will be received by Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine has said some 20,000 children were taken to Russia in the wake of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion. Fewer than 400 have been returned.
Moscow has denied forcibly taking thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia but has said they were moved for their own safety if they were without parental care.
Khater said the Qatari mediation had come “in response to requests from Russia and Ukraine to identify and explore potential areas of cooperation, with the aim of establishing foundations of trust between the two sides.”
Qatar has been at the center of a series of high-profile negotiations and hostage exchanges in recent months, most notably mediating talks between Israel and Hamas for the release of scores of hostages and a seven-day ceasefire in Gaza which ended on Friday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to address members of the U.S. Senate Tuesday amid a push by the White House for Congress to urgently approve new funding to help Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Zelenskyy was invited to speak via video at a classified briefing “so we can hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake” when lawmakers vote on a bill that includes billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine.
Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young warned in a letter to congressional leaders Monday that by the end of the year, the U.S. will no longer have the funds to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine. It “will not be able to keep fighting,” Young said of Ukraine, noting that the U.S. has already run out of money for propping up Ukraine’s economy.
In October, the Biden administration asked Congress for nearly $106 billion to fund ambitious plans for Ukraine, Israel and U.S. border security.
Funding for Ukraine has become politically controversial with some right-leaning lawmakers in the narrowly Republican-controlled Congress.
However, Young said in the letter released by the White House that cutting off funding and a flow of weapons to Ukraine would likely work to Russia’s advantage on the battlefield.
“I want to be clear: Without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine, to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks,” she wrote. “There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money — and nearly out of time,” she said.
Diplomatic envoys of the EU’s 27 member countries will meet Tuesday to start debating a launch of EU membership talks with Ukraine, according to officials and diplomats.
The meeting marks the start of preparations among the 27 for the December 14-15 summit of the bloc’s leaders that will also assess and decide on EU integration prospects for Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Bosnia and others.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has demanded that Ukraine’s membership bid into the European Union not be on the agenda at the EU summit.
In a letter he sent to European Council President Charles Michel, who will chair the summit in Brussels, Orban insisted that a “strategic discussion” is needed first about Ukraine’s European future and warned that forcing a decision could destroy EU unity.
Orban, who is widely considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies in Europe, maintains that Ukraine is “light years away” from becoming an EU member.
He wrote that EU leaders “must avoid this counterproductive scenario for the sake of unity, our most important asset.” He did not explicitly say that Hungary would veto any moves to open membership talks with Ukraine, but the threat was implicit.
Decisions regarding EU membership and EU’s long-term budget, which includes $54.1 billion in assistance for Kyiv, can only be made unanimously by all 27 member countries.
Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday the country’s air defense systems destroyed or intercepted at least 35 Ukrainian drones.
The ministry said on Telegram it thwarted the attempted Ukrainian attacks over the Crimean Peninsula and the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine’s military said Tuesday that Russia attacked overnight with 17 Iran-made Shahed drones, with Ukrainian air defenses destroying 10 of the drones.
It also said Russia launched six guided missiles targeting the Donetsk and Kherson regions.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
The U.K.’s only giant pandas left Edinburgh for China on Monday after spending 12 cub-less years in the Scottish capital.
It was hoped that female Tian Tian (“Sweetie”) and male Yang Guang (“Sunshine”) would produce a cub during their stay at the Edinburgh Zoo.
But the bears, who even had a special black, white, grey and red tartan created in their honor, never succeeded in conceiving.
“It’s sad that Tian Tian hasn’t bred here. We would obviously really have liked her to have done so, but this is not unusual with giant pandas,” said Simon Girling, head of veterinary services at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).
“I think we’re all quite sad to see them go. They are two lovely individuals, lovely characters, and we’ve got to know them really well.”
The pandas were transported to the airport in metal crates and loaded into a cargo plane with a pallet of bamboo ahead of their flight back to China.
They will spend time in quarantine on arrival in China before being re-homed at a sanctuary in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province.
The pandas arrived at Edinburgh Zoo in December 2011 as part of a 10-year agreement between the RZSS and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which was later extended by two years.
During their stay in Edinburgh, the popular pair even had a special tartan created in their honor, in black, white and grey representing their fur, and red to symbolize China.
Difficult to breed
But it was soon clear the two were not eager to breed.
The zoo and veterinarians from China made eight attempts at artificial insemination between the pair.
There was also a failed attempt to artificially inseminate Tian Tian in 2013.
The giant panda breeding program was stopped in 2021 after Yang Guang was treated for testicular cancer and later was castrated.
Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, with bears losing interest in mating the natural way — or simply not knowing how.
A female panda has a single estrus cycle in the spring in which she is fertile for only 24 to 36 hours, according to the Pandas International conservation organization.
“We have made a significant contribution to our understanding around giant panda fertility, husbandry and veterinary care — which has been of real benefit to efforts to protect this amazing species in China,” said RZSS chief executive David Field.
Attempts to breed pandas in captivity began in China in 1955. In 1963, Ming Ming, the first giant panda bred in captivity, was born at the Beijing Zoo.
Pandas are found in the wild in southwest China, along the Tibetan Plateau.
Niger’s junta on Monday scrapped two key military agreements that the West African nation signed with the European Union to help fight the violence in Africa’s Sahel region as the country’s army leaders and a senior Russian defense official discussed military cooperation.
Before the coup that deposed the country’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, Niger had been the West and Europe’s last major security partner in the Sahel, the vast region south of the Sahara Desert that Islamic extremist groups have turned into the global terror hot spot.
In a memo, Niger’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the government has decided to “withdraw the privileges and immunities granted” under the EU Military Partnership Mission in Niger that was launched in February and consequently “has no legal obligation” related to that partnership.
It also dismissed the EU Civilian Capacity-Building Mission established in 2012 to strengthen Niger’s internal security sector, effectively revoking its approval for the missions.
The developments are the latest in growing political tensions between Niger and the EU since the July coup.
In a rare visit on Sunday, a Russian delegation led by Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-Bek Yevkurov met with Niger’s junta leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, and Minister of State for National Defense Salifou Mody. The two sides held more meetings on Monday to discuss military and defense issues.
“At the center of the discussions is the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense,” Niger’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, hinting at formal political ties with Moscow, which has no embassy or military personnel in the country.
Most of Niger’s foreign economic and security allies have sanctioned the country, including France, which had 1,500 troops operating in Niger. All of them have been asked to leave.
Analysts say that although regional and international sanctions to force the junta to reverse its coup have squeezed the country, they have also emboldened the military government as it consolidates its hold on power and seeks new partnerships.
Russia has been active in parts of Africa through its private mercenary Wagner Group, from the Central African Republic, where the mercenary forces have helped provide security services to the government, to Mali, where they are partnering with the army in battling armed rebels and where the Yevkurov-led delegation also visited.
The Wagner Group was one of the first sources of help that the military leaders in Niger reached out to for support as they faced a possible military intervention from West Africa’s regional bloc of ECOWAS in a bid to reverse the coup.
Envoys from the European Union’s 27 member countries will meet on Tuesday to start debating whether to launch membership talks with Ukraine, officials and diplomats said, something Hungary has threatened to block and others to saddle with more conditions.
The meeting marks the start of preparations among the 27 for a December 14-15 summit of the EU’s leaders that is due to decide on integration prospects for Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia.
The European Commission, the EU executive, has proposed that the summit agree to start negotiations with Ukraine — possibly in March or once Kyiv meets final conditions — a coveted prize for a former Soviet republic that has been struggling to repel a full-blown Russian military invasion for nearly two years.
Specifically, the Tuesday meeting will discuss a draft agreement of the summit, which is also expected to decide on a related proposal to extend $54.10 billion in budget support to Kyiv through 2027.
No final decisions are expected on Tuesday, but the initial exchange among the member states will give a sense of how likely, or not, the summit is to give the green light to Ukraine.
EU diplomats and officials said the first draft prepared for discussion was bound to change.
The initial draft, dated December 4 and seen by Reuters on Monday, reads, “The European Council decides to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and with Moldova.”
For Georgia, it said the Caucasus republic would get EU candidate status “on the understanding” that Tbilisi implements outstanding conditions.
For Bosnia, the initial draft stated the bloc was “ready to open EU accession negotiations … once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved.”
All three decisions would require unanimous backing of the 27 EU countries. In the case of Ukraine, Hungary has threatened to bar that.
“In our perception, no conditions for Ukraine to start accession talks are met,” Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told journalists separately on Monday.
“How can [we] talk about the accession of a country that has been in the last two years at war, with public administration working only thanks to foreign money, with the level of corruption, with 20% of the country occupied. … How can anyone suggest the country is ready for accession talks?”
In what was widely seen as a bid to convince Budapest to back Ukraine, the commission announced in recent days that it would unlock billions in EU aid to Hungary that had been frozen over rule of law concerns, including corruption.
The chairman of EU summits, European Council President Charles Michel, also traveled to Budapest last week, but there was no immediate sign that he managed to sway Kovacs’ boss, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, on Ukraine.
One EU diplomat said Michel left Budapest “empty-handed,” while an official with the bloc said on Monday it was “very, very difficult” to secure among all 27 a deal to launch membership talks with Ukraine.
Further complicating the picture, some other EU countries have demanded that the summit advance the EU prospects of Georgia and Bosnia in exchange for their support for Ukraine, according to sources in EU hub, Brussels.
The French parliament is considering a ban on single-use, disposable electronic cigarettes that are popular with teenagers for their sweet flavors and are under scrutiny as a new source of trash.
The ban, supported by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and Health Minister Aurelien Rousseau, aims to protect the health of youths and mitigate the environmental impacts of the increasingly popular disposable products known as “puffs.”
The National Assembly was expected to vote on the measure Monday night. If passed, it would then move to the Senate and could go into effect by September 2024.
Disposable e-cigarettes are small, battery-powered devices that deliver vaporized nicotine with various flavorings. While they do not contain tobacco, many include nicotine, a dangerous chemical known for its addictive properties.
Marion Catellin, president of the Alliance Against Tobacco, told The Associated Press that “single-use e-cigarettes are made of plastic, contain a lithium battery and heavy metals like cobalt and bromine, and the nicotine in these pods is a highly toxic substance. This environmental impact alone warrants a ban.”
Disposable e-cigarettes differ from reusable vaping devices in that they are not designed to be refilled or recharged. Their small, non-rechargeable lithium batteries often end up in landfills.
Their rising popularity among teenagers, due to their tangy or fruity tastes and colorful designs, is causing alarm among lawmakers.
This bill is part of a broader trend. The UK, Ireland, and Germany are considering similar measures. New Zealand and Australia have already implemented restrictions. New Zealand’s measures include mandating lower nicotine levels and restrictions on vape shop locations near schools.
The surge in disposable e-cigarettes in the U.S. market, primarily from China, following the Food and Drug Administration’s 2020 ban on flavored reusable e-cigarettes like Juul, exemplifies the broader challenge. The flavor restrictions didn’t apply to disposable products, which proliferated in the wake of the regulation.
As a second wartime winter arrives in Ukraine, the country is working to ensure this one will not be as difficult as last year’s, when Russian attacks caused severe damage to the power grid and heat delivery systems. Anna Chernikova reports from Kyiv. VOA footage by Eugene Shynkar. Video editor: Rod James.