Archive for May, 2015

South China Sea: Vietnam, Philippines Vow Combined Military Exercises, Cooperation as China Looms

May 31, 2015

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Cynthia D. Balana
Philippine Inquirer

The Philippine Navy is open to exploring other ways of cooperation, including joint exercises, with Vietnam and other neighbors in the region following the holding of sports events between Filipino and Vietnamese sailors on an island in the West Philippine Sea.

“The Navy is hopeful that after the successful holding of the first sports engagements and the reciprocal visit for the same of the Vietnamese Navy, there will be other possible areas of cooperation and engagement, possibly even naval exercises,” Col. Edgar Arevalo, spokesperson for the Philippine Navy, said on Saturday.

Arevalo also said having sports engagements with counterpart navies in the region, including the Chinese Navy, would be a welcome treat to promote camaraderie among Asian sailors.

The games between Filipino and Vietnamese sailors were held in the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan Island Group on May 27.

Sixty-two sailors from the Vietnamese People’s Navy and the same number of sailors from the Philippine Navy took part in the games.

On June 28 last year, the Vietnamese People’s Navy hosted games with the Philippine Navy on a Vietnam-claimed island in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.

Read more: http://globalnation.inquirer.net/123744/vietnam-ph-mull-joint-drills#ixzz3bkuylKJy
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South China Sea: US defense secretary to ask Vietnam to end land reclamation as he starts visit to Vietnam

May 31, 2015

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US Defence Secretary Ash Carter today said that during his visit to Vietnam he will urge officials to give up their reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

HAIPHONG, Vietnam (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Sunday he will urge Vietnamese officials to give up their reclamation projects in the South China Sea, making a direct plea after earlier calling for all countries in the Asia-Pacific region to halt the construction of artificial islands.

China’s rapidly expanding building projects has raised tensions and caused concerns among the United States and its regional partners.

Speaking to reporters during a stop at a Vietnamese Navy base, Carter said that all the claimants in the South China Sea must halt their reclamation and any further militarization of the sites. Those would include Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, but their projects are dwarfed by China’s building program on reefs and atolls, which now totals more than 2,000 acres.

China is vigorously defending the projects in the face of persistent criticism from U.S. leaders, who say that the building programs will not provide Beijing any additional sovereign land. The U.S. and others are concerned that China will use the artificial islands as military bases and to assert control over navigation in the South China Sea.

Carter also toured a Coast Guard ship a day before his scheduled meetings with Vietnamese leaders. Other topics expected to come up are maritime weapons sales

Carters’ comments come in the wake of disclosures that China had placed two motorized artillery vehicles on one of its reclamation sites. Officials have said the artillery has been moved.

SINGAPORE-ASIA-SECURITY

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, left, chats with Singapore Minister for Defense Ng Eng Hen on May 30 in Singapore.(Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP)

This is Carter’s first trip to Vietnam as defense secretary, and the first time a U.S. defense secretary has visited a Vietnamese Navy base or toured a military ship.

Two years ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the former U.S. air and naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and went on board the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a cargo ship operated by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command.

Carter said he planned to talk with Vietnamese officials about ongoing efforts by the U.S. to provide maritime defensive weapons to the country.

Last October the U.S. partially lifted its ban on weapons sales to Vietnam to boost the country’s ability to defend itself in the South China Sea. Only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities are allowed on a case-by-case basis, including boats and air assets based on an evaluation of Vietnam’s needs. But to date no weapons have flowed to Vietnam.

U.S. Sen. John McCain said Saturday that the U.S. should gradually lift the weapons ban on Vietnam, amid heightened tensions with China over the reclamation projects.

China, Vietnam and other nations have conflicting claims over portions of the South China Sea. Both McCain and Carter attended an international security conference over the weekend in Singapore, where Carter urged the halt to reclamation projects by all in the region.

McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. should provide additional defensive weapons that could be used in case of a conflict with China. He added that the U.S. should continue its ban on weapons used for crowd control or to commit human rights abuses.

Carter said the U.S. will continue to discuss changes to the arms ban. He said the U.S. has some latitude to provide maritime weapons, including ships, now, but, “we’d obviously benefit from more latitude but we’d need legislative approval to do that” as well as endorsements from the administration.

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Cater with Vietnamese Air Force personnel, May 31, 2015

Nhận lời mời của Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Việt Nam Phùng Quang Thanh, chiều 31/5/2015, Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Hoa Kỳ Ashton Carter đã bắt đầu chuyến thăm chính thức Việt Nam.

Điểm dừng chân đầu tiên của Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Hoa Kỳ Ashton Carter là Cảng Hải Phòng, một trong những cảng biển quan trọng nhất ở miền Bắc Việt Nam.

Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Ashton Carter khởi hành đến Việt Nam từ Singapore sau khi kết thúc tham dự Đối thoại Shangri-la 2015 bàn về các vấn đề an ninh ở châu Á.

Trên trang mạng xã hội, đài BBC của anh đưa hình các sỹ quan của tàu Cảnh sát biển Việt Nam số hiệu 8003 làm lễ đón Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Hoa Kỳ Ashton Carter hôm nay tại Cảng Hải Phòng.

Hình ảnh Bộ trưởng quốc phòng Mỹ Ashton Carter đã đến Việt Nam số 2
 Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Ashton Carter tại Hải Phòng (ảnh BBC News World on Twitter)

Dự kiến, trong chuyến thăm chính thức Việt Nam trong hai ngày (từ 31/5 đến 2/6), ông và người tương nhiệm của nước chủ nhà sẽ ký văn bản về viễn cảnh hợp tác quốc phòng hai bên.

Trước đó, hôm 30/5, tại Hội nghị thượng đỉnh An ninh châu Á lần thứ 14 diễn ra ở Singapore, Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Mỹ Ashton Carter đã lên tiếng kêu gọi Trung Quốc “ngừng ngay lập tức và vĩnh viễn” các hoạt động xây dựng đảo nhân tạo trên Biển Đông.

Ông Ashton Carter nhấn mạnh cách hành xử của Trung Quốc trong khu vực hiện nay “vượt ra ngoài” các chuẩn mực quốc tế.

Trong phát biểu được đáng giá là rất quan trọng và thu hút sự chú ý của nhiều nước trong khu vực, Bộ trưởng Quốc phòng Mỹ Carter nhấn mạnh: Mỹ phản đối việc tiếp tục bất cứ hoạt động quân sự hóa nào tại Biển Đông.

Chuyến thăm đến Việt Nam trong hai ngày là lần công du đầu tiên của ông Ashton Carter trên cương vị người đứng đầu quân đội Mỹ kể từ khi nhậm chức.
Chuyến thăm này của ông Ashton Carter chắc chắn sẽ thu hút sự chú ý và theo dõi của truyền thông và chính giới Trung Quốc bởi Bắc Kinh coi Hoa Kỳ là một trong những bước cản trở lớn nhất cho kế hoạch thôn tính toàn bộ biển Đông của nước này.

http://www.tinmoi.vn/bo-truong-quoc-phong-my-ashton-carter-da-den-viet-nam-011360802.html

South China Sea: What Will China Change About Its Island Maritime Strategy? — Probably, Nothing

May 31, 2015

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After the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore May 29-31, 2015 — will China change any part of its aggressive South China Sea takeover plan? Nobody thinks they’ll change anything….

Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo addresses the fourth plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, May 31, 2015.

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By Minnie Chan in Singapore
South China Morning Post

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China’s top military representative to a regional security summit on Sunday dismissed speculation Beijing would soon establish an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the disputed South China Sea, calling on other countries to stop trying to “sow discord” over the issue.

But Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army, would not rule out creating the zone, saying it depended on the security situation.

“The Chinese government and military never said they were going to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea,” Sun said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

“The security situation in the South China Sea so far is stable. It is groundless for people to play up such an issue.”

The decision on whether to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea – following one Beijing introduced in the East China Sea in 2013 – would be based on an assessment of the situation, Sun said.

His remarks came amid escalating tensions between China and the United States over the disputed waters, with US Defence Secretary Ash Carter demanding an immediate end to all reclamation works by claimants and saying Beijing was “out of step” with international norms with its behaviour in the area.

Reclamation work by China has fuelled speculation it will declare an ADIZ, which would require overflying aircraft to identify themselves to Chinese authorities. The United States has expressed concern that freedom of navigation could be at risk.

Sun said in a speech to the forum that China was determined to protect its territorial interests and would never submit to “hegemony”.

But he avoided commenting on the Pentagon’s warning it would send aircraft and warships within the 12-nautical mile sovereign territory around the islets that Beijing claims.

He said the main purpose of the reclamation work was civilian and scientific.

“Apart from meeting necessary defence needs, it is more geared to help China better carry out its international responsibilities and obligations regarding maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and relief, maritime scientific research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, safety of navigation, fishery production, [and] services,” he said.

Major General Jin Yinan, director of the strategic research institute at the PLA National Defence University, said Sun’s comments that China had no plan to set up an ADIZ should not be taken as a permanent promise.

It was just a “temporary decision”, said Jin, who is a member of the PLA’s delegation to the forum. “What Admiral Sun wants to make clear is, China will decide to establish an ADIZ in the area when it feels challenged or in danger, but so far we don’t need it.”

INFOGRAPHIC: Surveying territorial claims in the South China Sea

Vice-Admiral Alexander Lopez, the Philippines’ commander, said he was encouraged by Sun’s speech, and agreed the situation was stable.

“Those alleged potential military confrontations [between China and the Philippines] are all political speculation, and I don’t want to make any comments,” Lopez said.

“My fleet is not bothered” by the Chinese navy currently in the South China Sea, he said.

Indonesian Defence Minister General Ryamizard Ryacudu, who held a bilateral meeting with Sun yesterday, said it was too early to judge China’s actions in the South China Sea, but he welcomed the admiral’s remarks.

“I don’t agree with most of Sun’s standpoint, but I think it’s a good beginning” to build trust, he said. “Once trust is built, then we can go to the next step to work together and come up with solutions,” he said.

China insists it has sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea but rival claimants accuse it of expansionism.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1814359/china-denies-it-readying-air-defence-zone-south-china

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China’s Polictical Reform Measure for Hong Kong Area “An insult to the intelligence of the Hong Kong public”

May 31, 2015

By Ng Kang-chung
South China Morning Post

US scholar Larry Diamond

A prominent American scholar in politics has dismissed as “an insult to the intelligence of the Hong Kong public” the political reform package Beijing has tailored for the city.

Professor Larry Diamond, citing the election systems in Iran and pre-US-invasion Iraq, said universal suffrage without “real choice” was meaningless.

Diamond is a political sociologist specialising in democracy studies. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and directs the Centre on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University in California.

He is also known in the city as a thesis adviser to Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmaker and former security minister, during her studies at the US university in the mid-2000s.

The professor, speaking from the United States via Skype, was addressing a seminar on Hong Kong’s political reform at City University yesterday.

“People who want a free society and who really believe in democracy should stand up, not only for their rights but also for their dignity,” Diamond said. “I just think the [political reform] proposal is frankly an insult not only to democratic aspirations but to the intelligence of the Hong Kong public to suggest that this is one type of democratic alternative.

Margaret Ng at seminar.“This is like saying [Iran] is another type of democratic alternative. No one would interpret … that merely universal suffrage would be enough.

“There is universal suffrage in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Everybody could vote. They just had effectively only one choice. And there was no freedom of choice.”

He also likened Hong Kong’s proposed system to Iran, where a Council of Guardians ensures only candidates the supreme leader would accept get to run for president.

“And the people of Iran are only offered extremely limited choice … There is a supreme leader in Hong Kong and it is not the chief executive. It is [President] Xi Jinping .”

Earlier, Basic Law Committee member and University of Hong Kong legal scholar Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee argued even the Iranian election system could produce a liberal-minded president who would push for reforms, citing Hassan Rouhani.

Another speaker, former legislator and Civic Party member Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, also argued against accepting the government’s package. “Accepting the political reform first would mean we have chosen to go in the opposite direction of achieving democracy,” Ng said. “It means we have legitimised Beijing’s way of controlling us.”

“We might get minute gains for accepting it first, but the price we are going to pay is so huge that we should not take that option.”

Dick Cheney: U.S. Needs To Again Be A Force for Good in the International Arena

May 31, 2015

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney to release book co-authored by daughter Liz to start lobbying campaign that is likely to play into 2016 presidential election

Former Vice President Dick Cheney chats with his granddaughter following her barrel race run on May 16 during the Casper High School Rodeo at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds in Casper, Wyo.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney chats with his granddaughter following her barrel race run on May 16 during the Casper High School Rodeo at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds in Casper, Wyo. PHOTO: RYAN DORGAN FOR THE WALL STREET
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By Patrick O’Connor
The Wall Street Journal
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CASPER, Wyo.—Few people noticed the 74-year-old in the tan Stetson at a high-school rodeo here. Dick Cheney was happy to blend in.

That is about to change. The former vice president is looking to make a splash on the national stage with a new book to be published in September and a group he and his daughter Liz launched to advance their views.

The effort is sure to play directly into the 2016 presidential debate, in which national-security policy is already a point of difference between the Republican candidates, many of whom are looking to turn the page on George W. Bush’s administration.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds, Mr. Cheney previewed some of his likely positions:

• He characterized one leading GOP contender, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, as an isolationist. “He knows I think of him as an isolationist, and it offends him deeply,” Mr. Cheney said. “But it’s true.”

• An early critic of nuclear talks with Iran, he thinks the U.S. should be prepared to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. He also favors additional arms shipments to U.S. allies in Eastern Europe and further military exercises in Poland to send a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

• And he scoffed at the debate that tripped up Mr. Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, over whether or not he would have invaded Iraq with the virtue of hindsight. (Mr. Bush, after some back and forth, eventually said he wouldn’t). Mr. Cheney instead said Republicans should scrutinize the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq under President Barack Obama.

Mr. Cheney’s overarching message, and the theme of the book he is co-authoring with his daughter Liz Cheney, is that the U.S. needs to assert itself more on the world stage. “We thought, looking forward to 2016, it was very important to make sure those issues were front and center in the campaign,” he said.

By weighing in, Mr. Cheney is bound to make himself a flash point in the 2016 debate, stoking further questions about which policies of the George W. Bush administration Republicans embrace and which they reject, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the bulk collection of phone records and interrogation policy. That could prove particularly uncomfortable for Jeb Bush, who has struggled to define himself apart from his brother.

Mr. Cheney already exerts quiet influence over his party, making semiregular trips to the Capitol to address House Republicans and advising some GOP White House hopefuls. He wouldn’t discuss those conversations. Two of his top foreign-policy aides have signed on with Jeb Bush. And he is headlining donor events all over the country for the Republican National Committee.

“The party is a very fortunate to have an active and engaged Dick Cheney for this upcoming political cycle,” said Reince Priebus, the party’s chairman, noting the number of candidates and elected officials who turn to the former vice president for advice. “He’s a top fundraising draw, in high demand.”

Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said “there’s no one happier about Dick Cheney becoming a foreign policy surrogate than we are…If he needs any assistance getting out his message, our team would be happy to help book him for interviews.”

Six years after leaving office, Mr. Cheney remains one of the most controversial figures in American politics. A majority of Americans viewed him unfavorably, according to a YouGov/Economist poll taken in June 2014. Critics have accused him of war crimes for his role establishing interrogation and surveillance techniques, some of which have since been overturned.

At the same time with the Middle East engulfed in violence and Mr. Putin threatening Eastern Europe, Americans are increasingly anxious about national security. And while much of the country remains leery about future military engagements, surveys show a growing appetite for the U.S. to be more active on the world stage.

Never one to obsess about his public standing, Mr. Cheney remains an unapologetic advocate for American military strength. He is unrepentant about the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. He staunchly defends the war in Iraq, interrogation methods a Senate panel deemed “torture”—a finding that he described as “deeply flawed”— and the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, which Congress is on the verge of modifying or letting lapse.

Mr. Cheney opposes a House-passed revision to the NSA program that would require the agency to seek permission for gathering data about individual Americans.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney seems to relish his villainous public persona, including showing off the latest feature on his Ford 350 Super Duty truck, a Darth Vader trailer-hitch cover.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney seems to relish his villainous public persona, including showing off the latest feature on his Ford 350 Super Duty truck, a Darth Vader trailer-hitch cover. PHOTO: RYAN DORGAN FOR THE WALL STREET

“We do those things because they work, because they produce results, because they kept us safe for 7½ years,” Mr. Cheney said at the rodeo, as “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus blared over the sound system. “Were they controversial? Yeah, absolutely.”

At times, Mr. Cheney seems to relish his villainous public persona. Outside the rodeo arena, he took a moment to show off the latest feature on his truck, a Darth Vader trailer-hitch cover, a nod to his alter-ego from the Bush days. “I’m rather proud of that,” he said, flashing his signature uneven grin.

He was particularly dismissive of the recent Iraq debate in which just about every GOP candidate said, no, they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, had they known the intelligence was incorrect: “The relevant question first ought to be directed to Obama, and it’s: ‘Knowing what you know now, would you have abandoned Iraq and pulled the troops out three years ago?’ ”

Mr. Cheney’s comments drew a sharp rebuttal from Shawn Brimley, a former director for strategic planning on the National Security Council under Mr. Obama. “We initiated a war of choice—Dick Cheney initiated a war of choice—under entirely false pretenses, upending the entire geopolitical architecture of the Middle East,” Mr. Brimley said. “We have been collectively dealing with the aftermath of that decision for the six years since (President Obama) took office.”

Mr. Cheney acknowledged that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have made Americans skeptical about foreign intervention, but he also attributed the phenomenon to the country’s relative safety since Sept. 11. “As we got further from 9/11, there was a tendency for a lot of people to say, ‘Let somebody else do it, we’ve done our share,’ ” he said. “Well, that makes no sense at all, if 19 guys with airline tickets and box cutters can take down the World Trade Center and Pentagon.”

Mr. Cheney and his daughter formed the Alliance for a Strong America last year to make the case to voters that Washington needs to rebuild the military and be more aggressive globally. The group has television and online ads in the works and plans to expand its footprint as primary voting approaches.

He is making his case in a series of donor events across the country, including ones organized by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp.,and Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade. The Ricketts family has given money to the Cheneys’ new group.

Public-opinion surveys suggest Americans are open to this message, particularly Republicans. Terrorism and national security have leapfrogged other issues since the 2012 presidential race, particularly among Republicans. In March 2012, 20% of GOP primary voters ranked them as their top-two issues, a Journal poll found. In April, the number had shot up to 53%.

With Republican primaries ramping up, Mr. Cheney is reluctant to criticize—or praise—individual candidates, with the exception of Mr. Paul. But he has distinct opinions about policies the next commander-in-chief should embrace. He wants Congress to scrap budget caps that go back into effect in the fall and boost military spending.

An aide to Mr. Paul declined to respond to the former vice president’s comments. In his book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” Mr. Paul explicitly rejected the “isolationist” label, arguing his efforts to cut the defense budget wouldn’t undermine the military.

Mr. Cheney also wants the next president to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, arm the Kurds and repair frayed relations with Sunni leaders upset about the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran’s Shiite regime.

Since leaving office, Mr. Cheney said he speaks with George W. Bush “occasionally.” The last time they saw each other was this past fall when Mr. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, had dinner in Dallas with Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura.

In addition to his continued political activity, Mr. Cheney makes plenty of time for hunting and fishing. He said he opens every duck-hunting season in Louisiana and makes additional stops in upstate New York, South Dakota and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he and his wife still own a home. Mr. Cheney, who had a heart transplant in 2012, fishes as much as possible—his iPad cover still bears his Secret Service nickname “Angler.” Last year, he took House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) fly-fishing near his Jackson, Wyo., home. Neither man said a word about politics all day.

He also has become something of a regular on the Wyoming high-school rodeo circuit, ferrying his 13-year-old granddaughter, Gracie Perry, to competitions, in what has become a weekend ritual for both. She competes in barrel racing, in which riders race horses around three barrels, and pole-bending, a slight variation.

Mr. Cheney drives his black Ford 350 Super Duty truck, with a horse trailer hitched to the back, often logging hundreds of miles between events. Because the events typically last all weekend, the pair often sleeps in the trailer—Mr. Cheney on a mattress over the cab, and Gracie on an adjoining couch.

In Casper, Mr. Cheney wandered into the arena without security. He traded notes about the weather with one man. Most generally didn’t pay much attention to the former vice president in their midst.

Write to Patrick O’Connor at patrick.oconnor@wsj.com

http://www.wsj.com/articles/dick-cheney-ramping-up-new-policy-push-1433084720

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Putin’s Russia Decides Against More Human Rights — Makes Most Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) Enemies of the State

May 31, 2015

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Less than three years ago Russia passed a law on so-called “foreign agents.” On May 23, 2015, Vladimir Putin signed another bill restricting the work of nongovernmental organizations, known as the law on “undesirable” organizations. Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov analyzes the consequences of these repressive measures and concludes that the process of deinstitutionalization of the civil sphere has already started in Russia.

 

Russia’s Ministry of Justice listed 67 NGOs as “foreign agents,” including Memorial Human Rights Center, regional partners of the Golos, the Dynasty Foundation and the Liberal Mission Foundation. Photo: TASS

The law on so-called “foreign agents” came into force in Russia in the fall of 2012.1 The whole process of discussion and adoption of this law was accompanied by a propaganda campaign harassing NGOs in the pro-Kremlin media, including the notorious NTV and Izvestia.

In its original version the law did not work, as the Russian NGOs unanimously refused to voluntarily register as “foreign agents” and thereby assume a label that in the Russian language has direct associations with espionage and treason. The law was hastily amended (which was not a problem, since the Russian parliament is controlled by the executive branch), and the Ministry of Justice was granted the right to put any organization on the registry that it wished.

As a result, a few months after the passage of the amendments, 58 NGOs were put on the list as “foreign agents.” Among them are some of the most influential Russian human rights and civic organizations, including the internationally recognized Memorial Human Rights Center, regional partners of the Golos electoral watchdog organization, the Andrei Sakharov Fund, the Moscow School of Civic Education, and others. On May 25, 2015, following passage of a new law on “undesirable” organizations, nine more organizations were added to the registry, including Dmitri Zimin’s charity, the Dynasty Foundation; and the Liberal Mission Foundation.

The campaign to find “foreign agents” among Russian NGOs is not confined to a single purpose. It follows the logic of the “revenge of the nomenklatura”—the gradual regaining by the state of the control over society that was lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first signs of this process were observed during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, but they entered into full force with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. This process led to a state takeover of federal television networks (in one way or another); the establishment of executive control over the parliament, the courts, and large business; the squeezing of foreign donor organizations out of the country; and the increasing complication of bureaucratic procedures for NGOs.

The campaign can also be considered part of the reactionary governmental policy of suppressing independent public initiatives that was formulated as a response to the protests of 2011–2012. The first symptom of the crackdown that would eventually follow the “thaw” of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency can be seen in Putin’s decision to run for a third term of office in the fall of 2011. This decision was likely triggered by the growing fear—amid growing social discontent—of losing control among members of the narrow circle in which key decisions about Russian state policies are made. The mass protests that followed in December 2011 confirmed these suspicions, and the authorities began to act resolutely and ruthlessly. The participation of independent activists, journalists, and public figures alongside members of the political opposition in these protests shaped the openly hostile attitude of the Russian authorities toward the independent civic sphere.

The “foreign agents” law was just one episode in a series of repressive measures.2 Introduced by this law were new restrictions on participation in protests, new regulations for foreign media, and expanded definitions of “treason” and “espionage.” Moreover, many independent journalists were expelled from major newspapers and Internet media outlets. Several independent media outlets were closed down. For example, Oleg Kashin was forced to leave Kommersant newspaper, the independent TV Rain channel was removed from the cable networks, and the independent Tomsk TV station TV2 lost its broadcasting license. But the removal of the editorial board of Lenta.ru, Russia’s most popular Internet newspaper, was one of the most scandalous developments in the media sphere. The regime moved from there on to the open suppression of alternative ideas and independent organizations, including active intimidation of the remaining independent media, NGOs, political organizations, and individual activists.

Set against today’s high approval ratings of the president and the government, these measures may seem an overreaction, but it is worth remembering that between 2009 and 2013 support for the regime dropped by one-third in response to the economic slowdown. Neither the pompous presidential campaign of 2012 nor the 2014 Sochi Olympics could stop the growth of public discontent. Thus it was important for the regime to eliminate any significant political alternative. (And it was only the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the government’s blatant propaganda campaign to boost the public perception of Russia’s greatness that helped the regime resolve the legitimacy crisis).

The elimination of viable political alternatives was achieved by discrediting not only individual activists and organizations (particularly through charges of pedophilia, embezzlement, falsification of historic facts, espionage, etc.) but also the very idea of ​​government accountability. It comes as no surprise that the “foreign agents” registry includes mostly organizations that focus on human rights and are responsible for civic oversight and monitoring of the government’s activities. (These groups are likely to also be included in the new registry of “undesirable” organizations.) At the same time, the authorities are trying to impede any independent thinking or self-organized collective action, which explains why they are trying to cut Russian NGOs off from foreign funding (currently one of the last sources of money that is beyond government control) and discredit them by labeling them “agents of the West.”

Finally, local and regional authorities have used the Kremlin’s expansion of the “foreign agents” registry as a pretext to settle accounts with various whistleblowers and watchdogs in their respective regions. According to activists, local chapters of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, and the special service agencies have resorted to the methods of intimidation rather frequently, while local administrations have done so less frequently. Many of the NGOs on the “foreign agents” registry have had a long and complicated history of interactions with the authorities. Some leaders of NGOs have participated in political campaigns (as deputies or advisors), collaborated with the opposition parties, observed the elections, and served on commissions overseeing prison facilities or draft boards; others cooperated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia in the early 2000s. As one of the NGO leaders put it, “at the first instance the authorities targeted those who annoyed them most of all.”

The significant reduction or complete disappearance of foreign funding (which is the ultimate goal of the Russian authorities) could eventually lead to a strong contraction of the independent civil sphere, as financial support of a comparable scale is not likely to come from anywhere within the country.

However, the bureaucratic logic of the government’s campaign should not be underestimated. In a sense this logic was formulated by the president himself when in 2013 he said that the law on “foreign agents” had passed and thus should work properly. In other words, everyone in the government was supposed to start searching for “agents.” The law also opened up additional opportunities for individuals to curry favor with the leadership and win bonuses and promotions. And it functioned in the opposite direction too: if the official was unable to identify a certain number of “foreign agents,” his or her career risks grew.

As a result, some of the strongest Russian NGOs came under direct pressure from the government. So far, they’ve managed to adapt to the tough conditions. Their professionalism and credibility enabled them to find financial and moral support both in Russia and abroad. Today the main threat looming over these organizations is that of heavy penalties. Many were charged fines of 100,000 to 300,000 rubles ($2,000—$6,000) for refusing to register as “foreign agents” voluntarily. Furthermore, the tax authorities decided to reconsider the status of some past projects implemented by these NGOs under both charitable agreements and commercial contracts. Thus, some organizations will have to pay back taxes amounting to up to several million rubles. If courts find these tax claims legal, these organizations may be ruined. Some NGO leaders are facing criminal prosecution for failure to pay the money owed by their organizations and risk being sent to jail.

This hunt for “foreign agents” is accompanied by the government’s propaganda campaign on Russian state TV, a campaign that poses risks to prominent human rights and civil society activists and opposition figures, who, as a result, might face threats of physical violence by extremists groups such as the state-sponsored “Anti-Maidan.” This campaign is also similar to the anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western, and anti-gay propaganda campaigns that were rolled out between 2012 and 2014. In the Russian regions, some human rights activists have already fallen victim to hooligan attacks: dead birds have been put in their homes, the doors of their apartments have been smeared with excrement, and the windows of one organization’s office were shot at. Given the recent assassination of Boris Nemtsov—one of the most well-known Russian opposition leaders, who was repeatedly labeled the “enemy of the Russian people” and the “enemy of Putin” in state propaganda campaigns—these threats seem very serious.

Finally, the significant reduction or complete disappearance of foreign funding (which is the ultimate goal of the Russian authorities) could eventually lead to a strong contraction of the independent civil sphere, as financial support of a comparable scale is not likely to come from anywhere within the country. Though the number of individual donations from Russian citizens is growing and several organizations designated as “agents” have managed to raise the money to pay the fines, financial contributions from ordinary citizens are still unlikely to replace long-term professional support from charitable institutions. In Russia there are no nonprofit organizations comparable, in terms of scale or professionalism, to their major Western counterparts. The number and resources of Russian companies willing to help are very limited. In addition, the humiliating “foreign agent” label confines NGOs, if not in complete isolation, then to a small circle of “friends.” As some individuals told the author, most of the partners and colleagues who used to work with NGOs recognized as “foreign agents” have not changed their attitudes toward those organizations and have continued offering them support. Outsiders, however, feel more wary. Limited access to new audiences means that it will be nearly impossible for an NGO to develop new networks and expand its activities.

Perhaps it is fair to say that in Russia the process of deinstitutionalization of the civil sphere has already begun: once-successful NGOs will start to close down. Many new initiatives will not develop into formal structures because of registration difficulties and high administrative costs. According to opinion polls, a considerable share of civic activity in Russia is moving away from NGOs and developing outside of their efforts. Though many activists from recently closed (or not registered) NGOs are planning to continue their work on an individual basis despite these impediments, the disappearance of formal structures poses a real threat to civil society. This threat needs to be acknowledged as soon as possible. Civic activity in Russia is entering the gray zone of ​​semi-official existence. The disappearance of the NGOs that today comprise the backbone of the country’s civil society endangers the unique knowledge and experience these organizations have accumulated over the last 25 years and threatens partnerships built within the nonprofit sector. Today, assistance to Russian NGOs is more relevant than ever before. And the fact that the majority of Russian NGOs are more inclined to expect international support rather than domestic help seems especially disappointing.

 

References:

  1. To distinguish Russian law from international analogues, see Vladimir Kara-Murza, “‘Foreign Agents’ in Russia and the US: Myths and reality,” Ekho Moskvy, September 10, 2013. In Russian:http://echo.msk.ru/blog/karamurza/1070994-echo/.
  2. For details, see Miriam Lanskoy and Elspeth Suthers, “Outlawing the opposition,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3 (July 2013): 75–87.

http://imrussia.org/en/analysis/nation/2258-the-label-of-an-enemy

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The Kremlin vs. The NGOs

By

MOSCOW — A number of strange protests — small, mild and held in a sort of minor key — took place in Russia’s main cities this week.

A bookstore in St. Petersburg wrote in its window on Tuesday, “We are proud to be selling books published by the Dynasty Foundation.” The Dynasty Foundation, a charitable organization that funds research and educational projects, had just been designated by the authorities as a “foreign agent” — contemporary Russian-speak for an “enemy of the state.” In Moscow, a school teacher stood in front of the Justice Ministry holding a cardboard placard. Later, a writer wearing a graduation gown stood in the same spot, holding a sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve. The teacher’s sign said, “Dynasty is not an agent”; the writer’s said, “Agents yourself.”

Dynasty is one of the oldest and largest charities in Russia. Its founder and leader, Dmitry Zimin, seemed, atypically for a rich Russian, to have no enemies — at least until Monday. Mr. Zimin, 82, is widely liked and admired. The oldest of the oligarchs of the 1990s, he is a former radio engineer who made his fortune by starting a cellular-phone network. In 2001, he left the company he founded in order to start a charity to fund scientific research. He then branched out into popular-science publishing, science museums and educational projects. Old enough to remember the Great Terror and his relatives who perished in it, Mr. Zimin had been careful to stay out of political controversies.

The “foreign agent” designation, created by Russian law three years ago, is reserved for NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity. A sort of scarlet letter, it carries practical consequences. It means that state organizations cannot work with any such organization, and it imposes financial-reporting requirements on NGOs that can paralyze them.

For a charity like Dynasty, which works with schools, libraries and museums, the blow, both moral and practical, is huge. Mr. Zimin has said it hurt him “almost to the point of tears” and that he will no longer finance the foundation. He cannot unilaterally decide to shutter it, but the Dynasty board is likely to make that decision at its meeting early next month.

But how can an educational foundation started by a Russian businessman be considered a “foreign agent” at all?

Read the rest:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/opinion/masha-gessen-the-kremlin-vs-the-ngos.html?ref=world&_r=0

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Photos via Livejournal/Philipp Kireev

Photos Show Activists Being Attacked and Arrested at Gay Pride Parade in Moscow

By Gillian Mohney

May 30, 2015 | 12:05 pm

A group of LGBT activists were beaten and arrested while attempting to hold a demonstration in Moscow on Saturday.

Photos from the scene in Russia’s capital show demonstrators holding signs or flags being attacked by an angry mob, including images that appear to show a man being punched in the face and later escorted away in handcuffs by cops.

The arrests took place during Moscow’s 10th Gay Pride Parade, an event that officials have banned every year of its existence. In previous years, police quickly dispersed the demonstrations, and again this year protesters were quickly arrested and hauled into waiting vans.

Around 30 nationalist counter-demonstrators threw eggs at the gay rights activists, and several of the counter-protesters were also held by police following the violence, according to AFP.

Activist Nikolai Alexeyev, pictured below wearing a blue shirt, wrote on Twitter he was arrested and injured after police grabbed him.

https://news.vice.com/article/photos-show-activists-being-attacked-and-arrested-at-gay-pride-parade-in-moscow

China Can Not Or Will Not Explain and Answer Questions On Their South China Sea Take Over — Threatens Air Defense Zone

May 31, 2015

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Adm. Sun Jianguo of China, left, and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday. American officials made it clear that disputes in the South China Sea would not hinder nascent military cooperation with China. CreditRoslan Rahman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many international experts and China watcher departed from the annual think tank “Shangri-La Dialogue” in Singapore this past weekend with unanswered doubts and questions about and for China.

Most expected Admiral Sun Jianguo of China to explain and answer questions regarding China’s confiscation, occupation and creation of islands in the South China Sea since last year’s Dialogue. By leaving without taking many questions — some believe China is signaling that its does not and will not abide by the international laws and norms that have governed others. The potential losers in China’s island confiscation and fortress building could be any number of smaller nations that rely upon the sea for food, natural resources and even perhaps a future bounty of natural gas and petroleum. As it now stands, it looks like the big dog in the ocean may decide to do what it wants, when it wants. That could lead to justifiable anger and resentment from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei — all nations with long-standing claims to some or part of the South China Sea and her islands.

Peace and Freedom

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China Says It Could Set Up Air Defense Zone in South China Sea

By Edward Wong
The New York Times

BEIJING — A Chinese admiral said on Sunday that Beijing could set up an air defense zone above disputed areas of the South China Sea if it felt it was facing a large enough threat, according to Chinese news media.

Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told a regional security forum in Singapore that China had not said it would defintely create a so-called air defense identification zone, but that any decision would be based on an aerial threat assessment and the general security situation. He also said other nations should not overemphasize the issue.

The creation of an air defense zone would be viewed by the United States and Southeast Asian nations as a huge provocation. In recent years, foreign officials have speculated whether one of Beijing’s next moves in the South China Sea would be to set up such a zone, whose existence would further solidify China’s military presence in the waters.

In November 2013, to the dismay of Japan and the United States, China declared an air defense identification zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea. Chinese military aircraft began requiring all other aircraft flying through the zone to identify themselves, and commercial airliners complied, though the United States sent B-52 bombers through the zone without advance warning to challenge Beijing.

In late May, Chinese officials told the United States to stop sending surveillance flights near land formations that China claims are its territory. American officials say the flights had taken place over international waters.

Admiral Sun’s remarks came during a question-and-answer session after he delivered the main Chinese speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore. As at previous such meetings, much of the focus of the conference, which ended on Sunday, was on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations all have competing claims to waters, islands, reefs, shoals and sandbars. In recent weeks, the United States has criticized China for island-building and land reclamation efforts on disputed reefs and atolls that were uninhabited until recently.

Read the rest:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/world/asia/china-says-it-could-set-up-air-defense-zone-in-south-china-sea.html?_r=0

Related:

 (Contains many links to related articles)

Prayer and Meditation for Monday, June 1, 2015 — The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone — Saint Justin, Martyr

May 31, 2015

Memorial of Saint Justin, Martyr
Lectionary: 353

Reading 1 TB 1:3; 2:1A-8

I, Tobit, have walked all the days of my life
on the paths of truth and righteousness.
I performed many charitable works for my kinsmen and my people
who had been deported with me to Nineveh, in Assyria.On our festival of Pentecost, the feast of Weeks,
a fine dinner was prepared for me, and I reclined to eat.
The table was set for me,
and when many different dishes were placed before me,
I said to my son Tobiah: “My son,
go out and try to find a poor man
from among our kinsmen exiled here in Nineveh.
If he is a sincere worshiper of God, bring him back with you,
so that he can share this meal with me.
Indeed, son, I shall wait for you to come back.”Tobiah went out to look for some poor kinsman of ours.
When he returned he exclaimed, “Father!”
I said to him, “What is it, son?”
He answered, “Father, one of our people has been murdered!
His body lies in the market place where he was just strangled!”
I sprang to my feet, leaving the dinner untouched;
and I carried the dead man from the street
and put him in one of the rooms,
so that I might bury him after sunset.
Returning to my own quarters, I washed myself
and ate my food in sorrow.
I was reminded of the oracle
pronounced by the prophet Amos against Bethel:“All your festivals shall be turned into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation.”And I wept.
Then at sunset I went out, dug a grave, and buried him.The neighbors mocked me, saying to one another:
“He is still not afraid!
Once before he was hunted down for execution
because of this very thing;
yet now that he has scarcely escaped,
here he is again burying the dead!”
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Responsorial Psalm PS 112:1B-2, 3B-4, 5-6

R. (1b) Blessed the man who fears the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
Blessed the man who fears the LORD,
who greatly delights in his commands.
His posterity shall be mighty upon the earth;
the upright generation shall be blessed.
R. Blessed the man who fears the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
His generosity shall endure forever.
Light shines through the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious and merciful and just.
R. Blessed the man who fears the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
Well for the man who is gracious and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice;
He shall never be moved;
the just man shall be in everlasting remembrance.
R. Blessed the man who fears the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.

AlleluiaSEE REV 1:5AB

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Jesus Christ, you are the faithful witness,
the first born of the dead;
you have loved us and freed us from our sins by your Blood.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 12:1-12

Jesus began to speak to the chief priests, the scribes,
and the elders in parables.
“A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it,
dug a wine press, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenant farmers and left on a journey.
At the proper time he sent a servant to the tenants
to obtain from them some of the produce of the vineyard.
But they seized him, beat him,
and sent him away empty-handed.
Again he sent them another servant.
And that one they beat over the head and treated shamefully.
He sent yet another whom they killed.
So, too, many others; some they beat, others they killed.
He had one other to send, a beloved son.
He sent him to them last of all, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’
But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’
So they seized him and killed him,
and threw him out of the vineyard.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do?
He will come, put the tenants to death,
and give the vineyard to others.
Have you not read this Scripture passage:The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes
?”They were seeking to arrest him, but they feared the crowd,
for they realized that he had addressed the parable to them.
So they left him and went away.
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Commentary on Mark 12:1-12 From Living Space

This will be our last week of readings from Mark’s gospel.  We are now in chapter 12 and fast approaching the climax of Jesus’ life and mission.  This chapter is marked by a growing conflict between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his own people. The chapter begins today with a parable (or, more accurately, allegory) directed towards that leadership.  Its meaning was very clear to those who heard it.

It tells the story of a man who planted a vineyard, fitted it out with all that was necessary and then let it out to tenants to cultivate.  It is clear that the owner is God, the vineyard is Israel and the tenants the people of Israel.  The words of Jesus echo very closely a similar image in a poem by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1ff).  In Isaiah’s image the vines only produce sour grapes.

In Jesus’ story there are evidently good harvests.  The problem arises when the master sends his servants to collect what belongs to him of the harvests.  One after the other, the servants are driven away or beaten up or even killed.  It is a clear reference to the way that God’s people treated the many prophets which God had sent to them.

In exasperation, the owner decides to send his only son, expecting that they will at least respect him.  But no.  The tenants argue that by killing the only heir, the vineyard will inevitably become their property. When the son (Jesus) arrives, they seize him, kill him and throw him out of the vineyard (a reference to Jesus being crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem).

What will the owner do now?  “He will make an end of the tenants and give the vineyard to others.  Have you not read this text of scripture: ‘It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone’?”  Jesus is rejected by the leaders and by many (but not all) of his own people.  The Gentiles will be invited to take their place and will be more than happy to fill it.

The words quoted from Psalm 118 can apply either to Jesus or the Gentiles.  Jesus, the rejected and crucified one, becomes the cornerstone.  Or, the despised Gentiles become the recipients of God’s love and grace and the cornerstone of the new Christian communities.

Clearly, this story did nothing to endear Jesus to the leaders. They would have (as foretold by the story they had just heard) seized him but they were afraid of the crowd (also Jews) who stood in awe of Jesus, his words and works.

This is one of these stories where we can be tempted to sit in judgement on those who rejected Jesus.  But we are not reading it today for that purpose.  Rather we are being asked whether we are listening to the word of God as it comes to us in the various people that God sends into our lives.  How much better are we than the Scribes and Pharisees?  How often do we rationalise ourselves out of doing what God clearly wants us to do?

What welcome do we give to God’s messengers?  Do we even recognise them when they come?  Maybe today, now, would be a good time to listen more carefully than we normally do.

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CHRIST JESUS HIMSELF THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE

God will, I will!

In the OT we find David and King David often saying “God will” and “I will”. He might have been hiding in caves and being hunted from house to house, but he kept saying “God will” and he kept saying “I will”. That dogged determination is evident in all the leaders throughout the OT.

God has, you are!

But in the NT we find something entirely different. Paul keeps saying “God has” and “you are!” Have you noticed that? Look in Colossians and every other book by Paul, he is always talking past tense. For example Paul says “Through Jesus Christ, God HAS reconciled the world” and he keeps saying radical things like “you ARE seated at the right hand of the Father” or “you ARE made holy, pure and blameless”. He doesn’t ask you how you feel or if you think you are… he knows what Jesus Christ did on the cross and he is TELLING you what you are – as a result of His blood on the cross!

This is how it works…

  • In the OT the Prophets looked FORWARD to what was to come and had faith that it would come.
  • In the NT we look BACK to what happened and have faith that it DID occur… all the way back then!

Here is a visual explanation of the difference between OT Prophets faith and NT Apostles faith…

You are built upon the foundation of the Apostles andProphets with Christ Jesus Himself the chief Cornerstone. –Eph 2:20

god_has_god_will1

Both kinds of faith are still workable, but in my personal experience nothing has ever matched the power of believing the full and complete and finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What is a cornerstone?

From Wikipedia

The cornerstone (or foundation stone) concept is derived from the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation, important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.

The entire structure takes it’s characteristics from the cornerstone… how fitting. Perhaps the church should spend more time studying our own Cornerstone?

Here is a  visual idea of how Jesus Christ connects the OT and the NT types of faith. It shows faith in Him, old or new, is built upon Who He is and what He did on the cross. In this image we can see Him as a cornerstone foundation on which the whole of the Old Testament and the whole of the New Testament are all built upon…

cornerstone

Having a NT type of faith as Paul did is absolutely vital if you want to go over the Jordan and enter into the promised land, because the key to it all is your faith! We (gentiles) are no longer moving into a physical land, but into a spiritual land.

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“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” (Psalm 118:22)
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The image comes from the ancient quarries where highly-trained stonemasons carefully chose the stones used in construction. No stone was more important than the cornerstone because the integrity of the whole structure depended on the cornerstone containing exactly the right lines. If the cornerstone was not exactly right, the entire building would be out of line. For that reason, builders inspected many stones, rejecting each one until they found the one they wanted. Rejected stones might be used in other parts of the building, but they would never become the cornerstone or the capstone (the first and last stones put in place).
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When Peter preached to the Jewish leaders in Acts 4:8–12, he quoted Psalm 118:22 to show that Jesus is the rejected stone whom God made to be the cornerstone of salvation. They (the Jewish leaders) rejected him, but God not only accepted him but put him in the position of highest honor.Peter pressed the point home with this powerful conclusion: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). These words are utterly exclusive.
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There is no other hope, no other way, and no other name than the name of Jesus. If we would be saved, we must come God’s way or we won’t come at all.Do not be like the builders who rejected God’s Stone of salvation! Do not reject Jesus Christ. Do not stumble over this rejected stone. The very stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. May God open your eyes to see Jesus as he really is—the Cornerstone of eternal salvation.Taken from “Rejected Stone” by Keep Believing Ministries (used by permission).http://www.jesus.org/is-jesus-god/old-testament-prophecies/the-stone-that-the-builders-rejected-became-the-cornerstone.html

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Reflection by  The Most Rev Msgr William Goh Archbishop of Singapore
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NEVER GROW TIRED OF DOING WHAT IS RIGHT AND GOOD

SCRIPTURE READINGS: TOBIT 1:3; 2:1-8; MARK 12:1-12

Today’s first reading is so inspiring for all of us.  What is most exemplary about Tobit is his commitment to doing what is right.  His mission statement is spelt out in his introduction, “I, Tobit, have walked in paths of truth and in good works all the days of my life.  I have given much in alms to my brothers and fellow countrymen, exiled like me to Nineveh in the country of Assyria.”

Certainly, most of us cannot compare with him in his faith in God, his generosity and compassion for his fellowmen.  He shared his food with the poor.  He put the needs of his compatriots before his own.  When he heard that one of them was murdered, he left his food behind immediately, and brought the dead man to his house for burial in the evening.  He did so even at the risk of getting into trouble with the law again.  Furthermore, he remained firm in helping others in need, even when his neighbours and his loved ones, including his wife, passed sarcastic remarks about him. He persevered in doing good even though he suffered misfortune for such acts, as in the case of his being blinded by the droppings of the pigeons.  In all these trials and difficulties, he never complained against God or cursed Him.

In contrast, the gospel tells us that the Jewish religious leaders only thought of their interests and protecting their position and status. They were greedy in spite of the generosity of God in choosing them.  In His kindness and compassion, God sent prophets to help them come to realization of their sinfulness.  Instead, they saw God’s messengers as a threat to their status quo and had them killed.  So blinded were they by their selfishness that they even murdered God’s only personal representative, His only Son!

What about us? Do we always do what is right and good?   Are we better than the Jewish leaders when it comes to being courageous in doing the right thing?  How often have we shrunk from doing good, doing what is right, or speaking the truth, because of fear of what others might say or how they would react?  We too want to protect our convenience and interests.  Such instances abound in community living, at the workplace, even in the family and in the parish.  We dare not act when we see scandals committed before our eyes, because it may bring us trouble.  We dare not speak the truth for fear that we may be challenged.  We refrain from doing good because others might question our motives, or we fear being taken advantage of.  We want to remain as the nice guy who offends no one at all costs, compromising even our principles so as to please others.

What is the secret of Tobit’s firmness in doing the right thing?   He was a man who feared God and observed His commandments.   But this fear of God must not be understood wrongly.  This fear of God was not one of servitude but of admiration, awe and reverence. For Tobit, having encountered this powerful and merciful God, he could not but be grateful to Him.  He knew that his position as an administrator to the king was due to God’s blessings.  Unlike the Jewish leaders, he felt that having been blessed by God, he should use his wealth, good fortune and position to help his weaker and poorer brothers.

Consequently, it must be noted that his compassion for his fellow brothers was motivated by the prior experience of God’s merciful love for him.  He was grateful to God and he manifested that gratitude by using his blessings to bless others.  What about us? Are we grateful to God for His blessings and are we willing to repay His kindness by being generous with others, using our talents and skills for the service of our weaker brothers and sisters?  Not to do so would be to behave like the Jewish religious leaders who not only did not pay their rent for the use of the vineyard but were greedy and even manipulative.  God gives us gifts, whether personal talents or wealth, not for ourselves only but so that we can be good stewards of His by distributing His gifts to others.

What then is the key to cultivating the courage to do good and the right thing, in the footsteps of Tobit? We too must fear God, awed by His love and mercy for us.  Our compassion for our brothers and sisters must not be simply an outflow of humanistic love, which is limiting, but rather, we must be moved by our own experience of God’s compassion for us.  Unless we come to realize that all we have, our health, our talents, our work and wealth come from Him alone, we will tend to think that we deserve them for ourselves because of our hard work.

Hence, we contemplate on the mercy and love of God as reflected in the person of Jesus Christ.  St John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict encourage us to contemplate on the face of Christ.  Only through the contemplation of His humanity and divinity, as the Apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte reminds us, can we come to understand the heart and love of God for us.  Only through contemplating His passion, death and resurrection, can we know the power of love and forgiveness.  Yes, we must not be so foolish as to place our efforts in love and service on ourselves, but we must find them in Christ who is the awesomeness of God’s presence for us.  Jesus, who was rich became poor for our sake, is our cornerstone of righteous, courageous and victorious living.

To contemplate on His face would also require us to contemplate on the Eucharist as well, for it is in the Eucharist that we see both the face of Christ’s humanity and divinity.  For in the Eucharist, Jesus, truly divine and human, is present in the bread and wine.  It is the means by which we continue to relive His passion, death and resurrection.  Indeed, in the Eucharist, the heart of God’s love is found.  For this reason too, after the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Church follows up immediately with the celebration of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart.  Both feasts which are rooted in the humanity and divinity of Jesus, present to us the love of God, which is the basis for our fear and reverence for Him, and the source of our power to love our neighbours.

Let us follow Mother Teresa in love and service, especially her secret of spending an hour or more before the Lord, present in the Eucharist each day, so that we can consecrate our day and our apostolate and activities to the Lord.  Only He can give us the strength to purify our motives in service.  Only He can give us the patience, courage, humility and perseverance to do good even when we are ridiculed and misunderstood.

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http://www.catholic.org.sg/archbishop/scripture-reflection/

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St. Justin the Philosopher

St. Justin the Philosopher (Justin Martyr) taught that the Logos had implanted truth in all cultures (the Spermatic Logos) and it was the Christian’s job to find these truths planted everywhere, according to culture.  There are other examples, such as Celtic Christianity and Native Alaskan Orthodox Christianity. Then too, there are three Persons in the Holy Trinity, and many Saints and Angels with roles much like the old gods.

Justin never ended his quest for religious truth even when he converted to Christianity after years of studying various pagan philosophies.

As a young man, he was principally attracted to the school of Plato. However, he found that the Christian religion answered the great questions about life and existence better than the philosophers.

Upon his conversion he continued to wear the philosopher’s mantle, and became the first Christian philosopher. He combined the Christian religion with the best elements in Greek philosophy. In his view, philosophy was a pedagogue of Christ, an educator that was to lead one to Christ.

Justin is known as an apologist, one who defends in writing the Christian religion against the attacks and misunderstandings of the pagans. Two of his so-called apologies have come down to us; they are addressed to the Roman emperor and to the Senate.

For his staunch adherence to the Christian religion, Justin was beheaded in Rome in 165.

Comment:As patron of philosophers, Justin may inspire us to use our natural powers (especially our power to know and understand) in the service of Christ and to build up the Christian life within us. Since we are prone to error, especially in reference to the deep questions concerning life and existence, we should also be willing to correct and check our natural thinking in light of religious truth. Thus we will be able to say with the learned saints of the Church: I believe in order to understand, and I understand in order to believe.

Quote:“Philosophy is the knowledge of that which exists, and a clear understanding of the truth; and happiness is the reward of such knowledge and understanding” (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 3).

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Justin Martyr, also known as Saint Justin (100 – 165 AD), was an early Christian apologist, and is regarded as the foremost interpreter of the theory of the Logos in the 2nd century.[2] He was martyred, alongside some of his students, and is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church,[3] the Anglican Church,[4] and the Eastern Orthodox Church.[5]

Most of his works are lost, but two apologies and a dialogue did survive. The First Apology, his most well known text, passionately defends the morality of the Christian life, and provides various ethical and philosophical arguments to convince the Roman emperor, Antoninus, to abandon the persecution of the fledgling sect. Further, he also makes the theologically-innovative suggestion that the “seeds of Christianity” (manifestations of the Logos acting in history) actually predated Christ’s incarnation. This notion allows him to claim many historical Greek philosophers (including Socrates and Plato), in whose works he was well studied, as unknowing Christians.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justin_Martyr

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Justin Martyr was the first great apologist of the Christian faith. Though most of his life’s details remain obscure, his apologetic works remain among the most profound Christian documents ever produced. The Works Now Extant of St. Justin the Martyr contains his famous First Apology, addressed to the Emperor Antonius Pius, as well as his Second Apology, which, addressed the Roman Senate, augments and expands the first. Both works defend myriad aspects of the Christian faith, but especially focus on defending Christian practices, the congruence of Christian theology with reason, and the influence of Christians on Roman life. Justin also takes great care to defend Christianity and against accusations of immorality and atheism.

With the Logos editions, these valuable volumes are enhanced by amazing functionality and features. Scripture and ancient-text citations link directly to English translations and original-language texts, and important terms link to dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a wealth of other resources in your digital library. Perform powerful searches with the Topic Guide to instantly gather relevant biblical texts and resources. Tablet and mobile apps let you take the discussion with you. With Logos Bible Software, the most efficient and comprehensive research tools are in one place so you get the most out of your study.

https://www.logos.com/product/38231/the-works-now-extant-of-st-justin-the-martyr

UK risks following Nazi example on human rights, UN expert claims — But No Mention of Russia or China?

May 31, 2015

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Human Rights: François Crépeau provokes outrage after likening Conservatives’ threat to quit European Convention on Human Rights to repression in 1930s Germany

François Crépeau

UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants François Crépeau Photo: AFP
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British withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) would risk following the example of Nazi Germany, a senior UN representative has claimed.

The Conservatives have threatened to withdraw from the ECHR if necessary to regain the power to extradite foreign criminals.

The move would be the most extreme option as part of plans to replace the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the convention in UK law, with a British Bill of Rights.

Professor François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said: “We have to remember the 1930s and how the rights of the Jews were restricted in Germany and then the rights of the whole German people.

“I mean, countries that go down the path of reducing the rights of one category of people usually don’t stop there.”

The Canadian academic, who last year attacked British attitudes to immigration as “b******t”, told the Sunday Times: “If you reduce the human rights protection, you reduce it for everyone.

“If you have a government that says, ‘well, there is too much human rights in this country, let’s reduce it’, at one point you might think it will reduce the rights of one category of persons but it has a tendency to spill over.”

• How the Human Rights Act escaped the Tory axe

Prof Crépeau said he did not object to the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge of introducing a British Bill of Rights so long as it resulted in “the same rights being protected in the same way” but that quitting the convention was a different matter.

The ECHR was introduced after the Second World War to try to prevent repeats of the kind of repression seen in Nazi Germany.

Prof Crépeau said: “We had discovered that majority, parliamentarian electoral democracies were actually capable of making errors, of violating the rights of huge categories of population and we did not want that any more.”

If that was allowed to happen again “we are going back in history and we are going to pay for it at a collective level”, he said. “We are going to suffer.”

Dominic Raab, the justice minister, called Prof Crépeau’s intervention “ludicrous”. He told the Sunday Times that “comparing proposals for a British Bill of Rights to Nazi persecution of the Jews is ignorant and offensive”.

Other senior Conservatives have previously been highly critical of any suggestion of leaving the convention.

Ken Clarke last year described such a move as “unthinkable” and “absurd”.

He said: “I personally think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights; it was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War in order to protect the values for which we fought the War for.

“It’s the way which we uphold the kind values we strive for, which are the rule of law, individual liberty, justice for all and the convention is the bedrock of that.”

What is it?

The Human Rights Act (HRA) of 1998 ensures that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is enshrined in domestic law.

What’s changing?

The Conservative party wants to scrap the HRA in favour of a new British Bill of Rights that isn’t bound by European courts.

The case for change:

The Conservative party says the European Court of Human Rights shouldn’t have power to override British court rulings and laws.

The case against:

Moving away from the principles of the ECHR would weaken human rights of the most vulnerable say human rights groups, and threaten the Good Friday Agreement.

What next?

David Cameron said he wanted to repeal the HRA within the first 100 days of the new government. But it seems to have taken a back seat for now.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11641553/UK-risks-following-Nazi-example-on-human-rights-UN-expert-claims.html

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Lomonosov Moscow State University Supervisory Board at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 28, 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Lomonosov Moscow State University Supervisory Board at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 28, 2015.

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Russian Rights Activists Slam Putin’s Crackdown on NGOs

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Daniel Schearf
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law a bill giving prosecutors the power to declare foreign and international organizations “undesirable” in Russia, shut them down, and punish any Russian citizens involved.  Supporters say the legislation is to prevent threats to Russia’s constitutional order, defense, or state security.Rights activists say it extends a crackdown on dissenting voices that criticize or challenge Putin’s rule.Putin quietly signed the bill on “undesirable” foreign and international organizations into law after little debate and only a few quick readings in the Duma, Russia’s parliament.The response to this latest legal threat to civil society groups, however, was loud cries of opposition, both foreign and domestic.

Condemnation of law

The European Union and the United States condemned the law, which allows prosecutors to not only shut down foreign NGO’s but also to punish Russian citizens involved with them.

The vague measure allows for interpretation on what is considered “undesirable” while specifying fines or prison terms of up to six years for repeat offenders.

Russia’s rights ombudsman, Ella Pamfilova, this week criticized the new law for lacking any legal ground.  She said the power to declare groups “undesirable” without going to court was against the constitution and criticized the failure to allow the right of appeal.

Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny on Thursday said he believes the law adds to previous restrictions aimed at keeping Putin in power.  He spoke in an exclusive interview with VOA’s Moscow bureau.

“I think this is very strongly connected to the 2015 and 2016 elections.” he said.

“For the Kremlin, it’s extremely important to eliminate any NGO’s that could not only finance but could also develop programs, gather people, or be an intellectual center.  Putin wants to clear the field of any organized structures,” he added.

Navalny, however, went on to explain he thinks the Kremlin’s actions are not completely cynical.

“I think that it’s part of paranoia of Putin and his circle,” he said, adding, “first of all the secret services, who still believe that foreign money comes to the opposition. They can’t believe that Moscow protests in 2011 and 2012 happened on their own as the result of Putin’s corruption,” he added.
Navalny was one of the main leaders of the anti-government protests that challenged Putin’s continued rule with street demonstrations numbering over 100,000 people.  He was frequently arrested and only recently released from house detention.

Putin’s supporters say the tighter regulations will help prevent Western forces from sparking a revolution against the Kremlin.

In 2012, they passed legislation allowing the branding of any group that receives foreign funding and engages in activity deemed political as a “foreign agent.”

Some 64 organizations have been designated as “foreign agents” and have to register as such or pay thousands of dollars in fines.

Human Rights Watch program director Tanya Lokshina said a number have closed down because of the label, which implies being a spy or traitor.

“The new law on undesirables is definitely part of the same trend of repression against independent voices but it takes it even further,” she said. “While supposedly aiming to prevent foreign and international groups from undermining national security, it is evidently meant to silence Russian groups and activists and cut them off from international networks, from their friends and partners from the international community.”

She says the new undesirable law is part of a crackdown on independent voices unleashed with Putin’s return to the Kremlin three years ago.

Kremlin targets critics

The Kremlin has also fueled a campaign to label its critics as part of a “fifth column” of national traitors that includes well-known opposition leaders like Navalny.

A young and unknown lawmaker in Russia’s parliament, Vitaly Zolochevsky, requested five organizations be investigated under the new “undesirables” law.

He pointed the finger at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Carnegie Center Moscow, Transparency International, and the Russian organization Memorial International.

Memorial’s Human Rights Center was already labeled a “foreign agent” and board member Oleg Orlov says Zolochevsky’s move seems aimed at gaining popularity.

Orlov says the lawmaker “… wants to run ahead and take initiative, to promote himself – to be more Catholic than the pope, so to speak,” adding,”He wanted to be the first to use the law as soon as it took effect.”

Orlov says while the law on foreign agents strangles Russians who work inside Russia, the law on undesirable organizations isolates Russian organizations from their international partners.

Russia’s Justice Ministry this week placed a leading scientific group, the Dynasty Foundation, on its “foreign agent” list.

Officials defended the action, saying the designation poses no threat to any organization’s existence and just requires transparency in foreign financing.

The Russian businessman who leads Dynasty, told the Interfax news agency he would stop funding the foundation because of the “foreign agent” label.

http://www.voanews.com/content/russian-rights-activists-slam-putin-crackdown-on-ngos/2798706.html

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European Union Questions Russia’s Putin For Blacklist of EU Dignitaries “Outside Norms of International Law”

May 31, 2015

BBC News

The European Union has responded angrily to Russia’s entry ban against 89 European politicians, officials and military leaders.

Those banned are believed to include general secretary of the EU council Uwe Corsepius, and former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Russia shared the list after several requests by diplomats, the EU said.

The EU called the ban “totally arbitrary and unjustified” and said no explanation had been provided.

Many of those on the list are outspoken critics of the Kremlin, and some have been turned away from Russia in recent months.

The EU said that it had asked repeatedly for the list of those banned, but nothing had been provided until now.

“The list with 89 names has now been shared by the Russian authorities. We don’t have any other information on legal basis, criteria and process of this decision,” an EU spokesman said on Saturday.

“We consider this measure as totally arbitrary and unjustified, especially in the absence of any further clarification and transparency,” he added.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte 24 April 2015

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the ban was “not based on international law”

The list of those barred from Russia has not been officially released, although what appears to be a leaked version (in German) is online.

A Russian foreign ministry official would not confirm the names of those barred, but said that the ban was a result of EU sanctions against Russia.

“Why it was precisely these people who entered into the list… is simple – it was done in answer to the sanctions campaign which has been waged in relation to Russia by several states of the European Union,” the official, who was not named, told Russian news agency Tass.

The official said Moscow had previously recommended that all diplomats from countries that imposed sanctions on Russia should check with Russian consular offices before travelling to see if they were banned.

“Just one thing remains unclear: did our European co-workers want these lists to minimise inconveniences for potential ‘denied persons’ or to stage another political show?” he said.

EU sanctions were imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014, and they have been extended amid ongoing fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Bernard-Henri Levy 01 April 2015

French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy is an outspoken critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told journalists on Friday that the list had been shared with EU diplomats and that three Dutch politicians were on it. He said the ban was “not based on international law”.

British intelligence and military chiefs, including MI5 director general Andrew Parker, former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers and chief of the defence staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton are reportedly on the list.

Former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told the AFP news agency that he had “read the reports in the media [of his ban] but not a word from the Russians”.

Britain’s foreign office said: “The Russian authorities have not provided any legal basis for the list or for the names on it.

“If Russia thinks this action will cause the EU to change its position on sanctions, it is wrong.”

Also said to be on the list are French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and the EU’s former enlargement chief Stefan Fule.

‘A decent club’

Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, said that her country has asked for an explanation from Russia.

Eight Swedes are on the list, including Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt.

“I’m more proud than scared and this gives me more determination to continue… If the Kremlin takes me and my colleagues seriously it means we’re doing a good job,” Ms Bildt told AFP.

Karel Schwarzenberg stock photo 18 April 2013

Karel Schwarzenberg: “I consider this a reward”

The former Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, also said he was pleased to have made the list.

“When I saw the other names (on the list), I found out I was in a very decent club. I consider this a reward,” he was quoted as saying by the CTK news agency.

Other countries with names on the list reportedly include Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria and Spain.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32949236