Queen Celebrates her 92nd in Royal Style

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth attended a star-studded special concert Saturday as the world’s oldest and longest-reigning living monarch celebrated her 92nd birthday.

Welsh singer Tom Jones kicked off the show with his hit “It’s Not Unusual” shortly before Elizabeth appeared in the royal box of London’s Albert Hall, flanked by her family.

Kylie Minogue, Sting, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Shaggy were among those on the bill, along with stars of the stage and screen.

At the end of the night Elizabeth joined the stage with her son, Prince Charles. He joked that she could not have predicted in 1948, when Charles was born, decades later a 92-year-old queen would be sharing a stage with her 70-year-old son.

Charles then led a round of cheers from members of the audience. The queen acknowledged them with a smile and her trademark royal wave.

Public celebration

The event is a break in tradition for the queen who usually spends her birthday privately with little public celebration, although there were nationwide events to mark her 90th.

The concert comes at the end of a week in which leaders and dignitaries from 53 countries came to London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and featured performers from the network of mostly former British colonies.

The queen is head of the Commonwealth. The major beneficiary of Saturday’s event, televised live on BBC TV and radio, will be the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust youth charity, of which her grandson Prince Harry was appointed president this week.

Still working

Elizabeth was born April 21, 1926, and became queen in 1952 at the age of 25, meaning she has now reigned for more than 66 years.

She still carries out official engagements, but her husband Prince Philip, who spent 10 days in hospital this month for a hip replacement, retired from public life last year.

As is customary with monarch’s birthdays, soldiers from the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and the Honorable Artillery Company fired gun salutes in London’s Hyde Park and the Tower of London earlier on Saturday.

Elizabeth also has an “official” birthday in June, which is marked with a large parade of soldiers through central London, known as Trooping the Color.


Tens of Thousands of Hungarians Protest Orban’s Rule

Tens of thousands of Hungarians protested Saturday against government control over the media, which they say helped Prime Minister Viktor Orban to a landslide election victory this month.

The rally in Budapest was the second mass protest against Orban since the April 8 election, with demonstrators urging the fragmented opposition parties to join forces against the right-wing nationalist Fidesz party, which won two-thirds of parliamentary seats at the polls.

Since 2010, the Hungarian premier has increased his control over the media and put allies in charge of formerly independent institutions, while his stand on refusing to accept large numbers of migrants in Hungary has also brought him into conflict with the European Union.

As tens of thousands of protesters waved flags at the foot of Elizabeth Bridge spanning the Danube, speakers called for freedom of the media and a change in government.

Peter Marki-Zay, who beat the Fidesz candidate in a mayoral by-election in February, urged opposition parties on the right and left to build an alliance and put aside their bickering.

“History has proved that no oppressive regime lasts forever,” he said. “We shall fight … against their media dominance and factories of lies.”

“It is fear,” he also said, “that holds this system together, and if from tomorrow people no longer have their fears, this system will fall.”

In a Facebook post before the rally, organizers said state media have been turned into Orban’s “propaganda machine.”

“Our main goal is to dismantle Fidesz control over the public media … but opposition parties also have a task as they are also responsible for this situation we are in,” they said.

Protesters gathered at the parliament building and then walked to the bridge, waving national and EU flags. Last Saturday, tens of thousands had protested at parliament against what they see as an unfair election system.

Protesters held banners with slogans such as “Viktor, give us back democracy,” “We want freedom of the press” and “Regime change.”

Third term

“Today is the beginning of a process … in government, I am sure that the opposition parties would not be able to cooperate. In opposition, I see more chance for that,” said Adam Farkas, 21, a student. “We disagree on many things … but we all want to live in Hungary and the main obstacle to that is Viktor Orban.”

Orban won a third straight term in power after a strong anti-immigration campaign. The strongest opposition party in the new parliament is the formerly far-right Jobbik, which has recast its image to be a more moderate nationalist force. Its leader resigned after the election.

The leftist opposition parties are also in turmoil.

“It is not Fidesz which won the election, the opposition parties lost it,” said Viktor Mikes, a 26-year old administrator at a multinational company. He said opposition politicians should all step aside, and that new people were needed.

“We should start with a clean slate,” he said.

The election victory appears to have emboldened Orban to put more effort into his fight against the EU’s migration policies and harden his stance on NGOs that he says have been meddling in Hungary’s affairs.

In an interview on Friday on state radio, Orban accused George Soros, the Budapest-born financier, of political activism in Hungary, saying his circle had supported the opposition.

“I know they won’t accept the result of the election. They will organize all sorts of things. They have unlimited financial resources,” Orban said.

Soros’ foundation on Friday accused Orban of trying to stifle nongovernment groups, and said it could leave the country if parliament passed a “Stop Soros” law that would impose a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that support migration.

The government says the legislation is meant to deter illegal immigration.


Marchers: Jail Basque Inmates Closer to Homes

Several thousand protesters have marched in northern Spain to demand that imprisoned members of the militant Basque group ETA be moved to prisons closer to their homes.

The demonstration in Bilbao on Saturday came a day after ETA made an unprecedented apology for the killings of more than 850 people during the group’s four-decade armed campaign for the Basque region’s independence from France and Spain.

The group, which ceased killing in 2011, is expected to announce it is dissolving next month.

Hundreds of members of ETA are kept in Spanish and French prisons, mostly outside the Basque region.

The Spanish government has said that ETA’s vow to not return to violence was long overdue and would not be rewarded by easing the conditions of its members in prisons.


Plastic: If It’s Not Keeping Food Fresh, Why Use It?

The food industry uses plastic to wrap its products in many places around the world. Plastic manufacturers say that keeps produce and meat fresh longer, so less goes bad and is thrown away. But, according to a new European study, while the annual use of plastic packaging has grown since the 1950s, so has food waste. Faiza Elmasry has the story. Faith Lapidus narrates.


US: North Korea, China, Russia and Iran Leading Human Rights Violators

The United States is calling out North Korea, China, Russia and Iran as “morally reprehensible governments” that violate human rights on a near-daily basis. But the State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2017” also cited improvements in some countries’ records, including Liberia, Uzbekistan and Mexico. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from the State Department.


France: EU Needs Full Exemption from US Tariffs

The European Union needs to be exempted from steel and aluminum tariffs announced by the United States in order to work with Washington on trade with China, France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Friday.

“We are close allies between the EU and the United States. We cannot live with full confidence with the risk of being hit by those measures and by those new tariffs. We cannot live with a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” Le Maire told a press conference during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings. 

“If we want to move forward … if we want to address the issue of trade, an issue of the new relationship with China, because we both want to engage China in a new multilateral order, we must first of all get rid of that threat,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports last month to counter what he has described as unfair international competition.

Le Maire said the EU’s exemption from the tariffs should be “full and permanent.”

The EU is seeking compensation from the United States for the tariffs through the World Trade Organization. Brussels has called for consultations with Washington as soon as possible and is drawing up a list of duties to be slapped on U.S. products.


ETA Separatists Apologize for ‘Pain,’ ‘Harm’ It Caused

The Basque separatist group ETA apologized Friday for the suffering caused by its decades-long campaign of violence to create an independent state and appealed to its victims for forgiveness.

“We have caused a lot of pain and irreparable harm. We want to show our respect to the dead, to the wounded and to the victims of the actions of ETA. … We sincerely regret it,” the militant group said in a statement published by Basque newspapers Beria and Gara.

ETA is committed “to finally overcome the consequences of the conflict and to not fall into its repetition,’’ the statement said.

The statement comes as ETA, an acronym for the phrase “Basque Homeland and Liberty,” is expected to announce its final dissolution early next month.

ETA, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government, has been blamed for the deaths of more than 850 people since the late 1960s in its quest for an independent homeland out of territory in northern Spain and southwestern France.

The group has been weakened by attrition and a string of high-profile arrests in the late 1990s and 2000s. The last known murder victim of ETA was a French police officer killed in Paris in 2010.


Blocks of Berlin Cleared for WWII Bomb Disposal

Berlin police were evacuating thousands of people from a central area of the German capital Friday and shutting down the main train station in preparation for the removal of an unexploded World War II bomb found during recent construction work.

Some 10,000 residents and workers were being forced to leave a two-square-kilometer (almost a square mile) area, including the train station, while bomb experts defuse the 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) British bomb dropped during the war.

Trains were prevented from stopping at the busy station from 10 a.m., and through traffic was being shut down at 11:30 a.m. before experts begin their work, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn said.

Rail traffic is tentatively planned to resume about 1 p.m. but it’s not clear how long the bomb disposal operation will take. Some 300,000 travelers use the station daily, according to Deutsche Bahn.

The evacuation area, a circle around the construction site north of the train station where the bomb was discovered, also includes a hospital, the main office of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, and parts of both the economy and transportation ministries.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office and Germany’s parliament building are close by, but outside the zone.

Common discovery

Even 73 years after the end of the war, such discoveries remain common in major German cities.

Downtown Berlin was largely reduced to rubble in hundreds of Allied bombing raids during the war and street-to-street fighting between the Nazi and Soviet armies in the final days of the conflict.

Experts estimate that more than 5 percent of the bombs dropped on Berlin failed to explode for a variety of reasons, including faulty fuses, poor assembly and bad angle of impact. The city estimates at least 3,000 bombs, grenades and other munitions are still buried.

In one of the more sensational finds, a 250-kilogram (550-pound) British bomb was found in 2002 beneath the lower ring of seats during renovation work at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where tens of thousands of fans regularly watch the city’s Hertha BSC soccer club play its home games.


Russia: Putin Ready to Meet Trump in US

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that President Vladimir Putin is willing to accept U.S. President Donald Trump’s invitation to meet in Washington.

In an interview with state-operated RIA Novosti news agency, Lavrov said that Putin is “ready for such a meeting.”

“We are guided by the fact that the U.S. president, in a telephone conversation, which is a known fact already, there is no secret, extended such an invitation and said he would be happy to see [Putin] in the White House.”

Lavrov added that Trump returned to the subject of the invitation a couple of times during the phone call with Putin and told him he would be happy to make a reciprocal visit to Russia.

Earlier Trump and Putin agreed on a possible summit in Washington.

Trump telephoned Putin on March 20 to congratulate him on winning the Russian presidential election two days earlier.

The White House and the Kremlin said at the time the two presidents discussed the possibility of meeting in person.


Russian, NATO Generals Hold Rare Face-to-Face Meeting

The head of Russia’s military general staff and NATO’s supreme allied commander held a rare face-to-face meeting Thursday to try to ease the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.

U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti and Valery Gerasimov met in Baku, Azerbaijan, less than a week after the United States, Britain and France staged missile strikes on Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Russia.

In separate statements, NATO and the Russian defense ministry said the participants discussed military exercises and troop movements. Each side has accused the other of risky deployments in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe.

Scaparrotti and Gerasimov — who Western military officials say is a proponent of Russia’s strategy of mixing military weaponry with cyberwarfare and disinformation — discussed “questions concerning NATO and Russian military activity in the European region,” the Russian defense ministry said.

NATO said the meeting “focused on issues related to military posture and exercises” — defense parlance for how to avoid military accidents that might lead to war. “The two military leaders used the … channel to foster predictability and transparency.”

The Russian side said the pair also talked about the seven-year civil war in Syria, where Moscow and the West back opposing sides, and combating Islamic militants.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that further Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs.

Perceived threat

Already bridling at NATO’s expansion eastward into its old Soviet sphere of influence, the Kremlin sees the U.S.-led alliance’s new deterrents in the Baltics and Eastern Europe as a threat to its security.

NATO says it is modernizing to defend itself against an assertive Russia. The alliance believes Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and drills like last September’s large-scale Russian exercises along NATO’s eastern flank put European stability at risk.

As both sides hold exercises and strengthen their militaries, the risk of accidents between rival ships, missiles and aircraft grows, with unintended and potentially devastating consequences between the two nuclear-armed powers, military analysts say.

Earlier this month, Russia tested missiles with live munitions in the Baltic Sea, alarming Latvia and neutral Sweden.

The meeting between Scaparrotti and Gerasimov followed over a year of diplomacy between senior military figures in Russia and the West to try to re-establish formal communication links that broke down following Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

“General Scaparrotti and General Gerasimov agreed to continue using the military lines of communication in the future,” NATO said in its statement.

In early 2017, Czech General Petr Pavel, who heads NATO’s military committee, had his first telephone call in more than two years with Gerasimov, paving the way for them to meet last September in Baku.

U.S. General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, also met Gerasimov in Azerbaijan last year.


US-China Trade Row Threatens Global Confidence: IMF’s Lagarde

The biggest danger from the U.S.-China trade dispute is the threat to global confidence and investment, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said on Thursday.

The IMF chief said the tariffs threatened by the world’s two largest economies would have a modest direct impact on the global economy but could produce uncertainty that choked off investment, one of the key drivers of rising global growth.

“The actual impact on growth is not very substantial, when you measure in terms of GDP,” Lagarde said of the tariffs, adding that the “erosion of confidence” would be worse.

“When investors do not know under what terms they will be trading, when they don’t know how to organize their supply chain, they are reluctant to invest,” she told a news conference in Washington where world financial leaders gathered for the start of the IMF and World Bank spring meetings.

In its World Economic Outlook released on Tuesday, the IMF cited 2016 research showing that tariffs or other barriers leading to a 10 percent increase in import prices in all countries would lower global output by about 1.75 percent after five years and by close to 2 percent in the long term.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry warned that the Trump administration’s tariff threats and other measures to try to force trade concessions from Beijing was a “miscalculated step” and would have little effect on Chinese industries.

In the latest escalations in the trade row, Washington said this week that it had banned U.S. companies from selling parts to Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE for seven years, while China on Tuesday announced hefty anti-dumping tariffs on imports of U.S. sorghum and measures on synthetic rubber imports from the United States, European Union and Singapore.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office also is planning to soon release a second list of Chinese imports targeted for an additional $100 billion of U.S. tariffs, tripling the amount of Chinese goods under a tariff threat.

Lagarde said the trade tensions would be a major topic of discussion among finance ministers and central bank governors at the IMF and World Bank meetings.

“My suspicion is that there will be many bilateral discussions to be had between the various parties involved,” Lagarde said, adding that the issue would also be discussed in larger sessions involving the Fund’s 189 member countries.

“Investment and trade are two key engines that are finally picking up. We don’t want to damage that,” Lagarde said.

If the tariffs go into effect, the hit to business confidence would be worldwide because supply chains are globally interconnected, she added.



As Commonwealth Leaders Meet, Questions Over Purpose, Leadership

Leaders from around the world are gathered in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Questions linger over the Commonwealth’s future: what is it for, and what role should the former imperial power Britain play?  In her opening address to the summit, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth – the head of the Commonwealth – made it clear she wants its leadership to stay in the family.

“It is my sincere wish that the Commonwealth will continue to offer stability and continuity for future generations.  I will decide that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949 by continuing to treasure and reinvigorate our associations and activities,” Queen Elizabeth told delegates gathered Thursday at Buckingham Palace.

The Commonwealth emerged from the breakdown of the British Empire in the last century and critics say it has failed to shake off its colonial legacy.  Many argue the organization should sever its royal links – including Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, and author of a new book The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth.

“The problem in recent decades, really since the 1990s, is that as the Commonwealth has lost its relevance, it’s lost any really major unifying issue to make it newsworthy, the only really newsworthy thing about the Commonwealth has been the Royal Family.”

Imperial transgressions

The Commonwealth has made headlines this week, but not for reasons the British government intended.  Prime Minister Theresa May apologized to the leaders of Caribbean member states, after it emerged migrants who arrived in Britain in the 1950s and 60s from what were then British colonies had been refused residency and threatened with deportation.

“I want to dispel any impression that my government is in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those in the Caribbean, who brought a life here,” May told the leaders of several Caribbean countries.

Speaking at the Commonwealth summit, she also later apologized for the role Britain had played in criminalizing same-sex relations in its former colonies.

“I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country.  They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Campaigners say millions of gay, lesbian, and transgender people live in fear of arrest across the Commonwealth.  Peter Tatchell led a protest outside the Commonwealth headquarters at London’s Marlborough House.

“Thirty-six member states still criminalize same-sex relations.  Nine have life imprisonment.  And in parts of two countries – Nigeria and Pakistan – gay people can be put to death.  Quite clearly the rhetoric of the Commonwealth is not matched by the practice of the governments,” Tatchell told VOA.

Direction unclear

Despite internal tensions, the Commonwealth heads of government meeting has offered tangible progress: billions of dollars pledged to tackle malaria, a crackdown on plastic waste, and a rainforest conservation drive.  It also offers a global platform for countries seeking investment, as South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said earlier this week.

“We are trawling, going to trawl the whole world, right from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Americas, both North and South, to try and campaign for investments that will come to South Africa as we are proceeding on our route of building more confidence in our country, in our economy.  And coming here, participating in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is an added boost for us.”

Some British lawmakers want to reinvigorate the Commonwealth after Britain leaves the European Union.  That will be difficult, says Professor Philip Murphy.

“The Commonwealth is a rather difficult soft power vehicle for Britain.  It may perform good works, it may channel aid through the Commonwealth.  But it’s a reminder that Britain used to be the imperial ruler, the imperial master.  And there’s still a great deal of resentment about that within the Commonwealth.”

Until that image is shaken off, questions over the purpose and future of the Commonwealth are likely to persist.