MANILA: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has signed into law a bill that raises the minimum age of sexual consent from 12 to 16, his office said on Monday, in a bid to protect minors from rape and sexual abuse.
The Philippines until now has had one of the world’s lowest minimum ages of sexual consent, behind Nigeria’s age of 11, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
A joint 2015 study by UNICEF and the Center for Women’s Resources, a local non-governmental group, showed seven of 10 rape victims in the Philippines were children.
One in five respondents age 13 to 17 reported experiencing sexual violence, while one in 25 experienced forced consummated sex during childhood, the study said.
Under the bill endorsed by Duterte, which is gender neutral, any adult engaging in sexual contact with anyone 16 or under would be committing statutory rape, unless the age difference between them was three years or less and sex was proven to be consensual, and neither abusive nor exploitative.
The exemption does not apply if the one of those involved was under 13.
“We welcome this legal development and hope that it will help protect young girls from rape and sexual abuse,” said Josalee Deinla, spokesperson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, which provides legal help to poor and marginalized people in the Philippines.
Lawrence Fortun, one of the bill’s main sponsors, described it as “a major step forward.”
“I am elated that our collective efforts at pushing for stronger protection against rape and other forms of sexual abuse are advancing,” he said in a statement.
United Nations, USA: After two years the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over and could be prolonged further due to “scandalously unequal” vaccine distribution, the UN secretary-general warned Wednesday.
“The pandemic’s most tragic toll has been on the health and lives of millions, with more than 446 million cases worldwide, more than six million deaths confirmed, and countless more grappling with worsening mental health,” said UN chief Antonio Guterres in a statement marking the second anniversary of the global crisis.
“Thanks to unprecedented public health measures, and the extraordinarily rapid development and deployment of vaccines, many parts of the world are bringing the pandemic under control,” he said.
“But it would be a grave mistake to think the pandemic is over.”
Guterres noted that the “distribution of vaccines remains scandalously unequal,” and that while 1.5 billion doses of vaccine are produced each month, “nearly three billion people are still waiting for their first shot.”
“This failure is the direct result of policy and budgetary decisions that prioritize the health of people in wealthy countries over the health of people in poor countries,” said Guterres.
He added that the two-tiered recovery is “a recipe for more variants, more lockdowns and more sorrow and sacrifice in every country.”
The statement concluded by calling on the whole world to “re-dedicate ourselves to ending this pandemic… and closing this sad chapter in humanity’s history, once and for all.”
CARACAS: The White House says two American detainees have been released by the Venezuelan government.
Gustavo Cardenas is an oil executive who had been jailed alongside colleagues since 2017. Jorge Fernandez was arrested last year on what the White House described as “spurious charges.”
The move follows a secret weekend visit to Venezuela by senior Biden administration officials, including the top White House official on Latin America and the State Department’s top hostage negotiator.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that “there were a range of topics discussed during that trip, including the health and welfare of detained US citizens.”
LOONDON: Former UK House of Commons speaker John Bercow was on Tuesday branded a “serial liar” in an official report that upheld bullying claims against him and recommended he be denied a parliamentary pass for life.
Bercow, 59, gained an international reputation for his theatrical interventions and dressing down of MPs, as he presided over often fractious debates about Brexit.
He stepped down in 2019 following accusations that he fostered a culture of bullying and harassment within parliament.
On Tuesday, parliament’s sanctions panel upheld an earlier ruling by the legislature’s standards commissioner, concluding that Bercow had displayed “threatening conduct” including verbal abuse and displays of anger.
“The respondent has been a serial bully,” the report said.
“Like many bullies, he had those whom he favored and those whom he made victims. These three complainants were victims.”
The report, which also accused Bercow of being a “serial liar,” added: “The respondent’s conduct was so serious that, had he still been a Member of Parliament, we would have determined that he should be expelled.
“As it is, we recommend that he should never be permitted a pass to the Parliamentary estate.”
In response, Bercow, the longest serving Commons speaker since World War II, denounced the initial report as “amateurish” that would not pass muster in court.
“It is a travesty of justice and brings shame on the House of Commons…
“To describe what I have experienced as a kangaroo court is grossly insulting to kangaroos.
“It is based on the flimsiest of evidence, rooted in hearsay and baseless rumor, and advanced by old school dogmatists… settling some ancient scores with me.”
Although he has had his pass revoked, the former Conservative MP can still access parliament as a guest or as a member of the public.
Bercow defected to Labour after leaving office, but British media reported on Tuesday that he had been administratively suspended from the party pending an investigation.
In his 12 years as the top official in Britain’s elected lower chamber, Bercow was no stranger to controversy.
His broadside against then US president Donald Trump and a perceived bias in his role in Brexit debates riled many within his own party.
The speaker wields enormous power in choosing which MPs speak on what subjects and when, and Bercow promoted the rights of backbenchers to hold ministers to account through emergency debates and questions.
Bercow riled euroskeptics by selecting amendments for debate that challenged the government’s strategy for leaving the European Union.
He was also criticized over a sticker in his car saying “Bollocks to Brexit.”
The youngest person to hold the role for 100 years, Bercow abandoned the traditional robes in favor of a simple gown worn over a suit and tie, and allowed MPs to take off their ties.
But he was embroiled in controversy from the start, when he claimed thousands of pounds (dollars, euros) to refurbish his rent-free official apartment, in part to accommodate his three children.
His wife Sally has also made headlines. In 2011, she posed for a newspaper wearing only a bedsheet, and also appeared in a reality television show.
The Independent Expert Panel report said it was “for historians to judge” whether Bercow had been “a successful reforming speaker of the House of the Commons,” as he claims.
“However, there was no need to act as a bully in order to achieve that aim,” it argued.
“A great office can be filled forcefully and effectively without descending to such behavior.”
WARSAW, Poland: The Pentagon on Tuesday rejected Poland’s offer to give the United States its MiG-29 fighter jets for use by Ukraine, in a rare public display of disharmony by NATO allies seeking to boost Ukrainian fighters while avoiding getting caught up in a wider war with Russia.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Poland’s proposal earlier Tuesday to deliver the jets to the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany raised the concerning prospect of jets departing from a US and NATO base to fly into airspace contested with Russia in the Ukraine war.
“We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” Kirby said in a statement.
“It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it,” he said.
Any decision to provide the MiGs would be a morale booster for Ukraine as Russian attacks on its cities deepen the humanitarian catastrophe. But it also would raise the risks of a wider war.
One senior US diplomat said Poland’s announcement came as a surprise.
“To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us that they plan to get these planes to us,” said US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who told lawmakers she learned of the proposal as she was driving to testify about the Ukraine crisis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Ukraine has been pleading for more warplanes and Washington has been looking at a proposal under which Poland would supply Ukraine with the Mig29s and in turn receive American F-16s to make up for their loss. Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly the Soviet-era fighter jets.
The Polish Foreign Ministry announced the plan in a statement, which said the jets would be delivered to Ramstein free of charge.
“At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” it said.
The Polish government also appealed to other owners of MIG-29 jets to follow suit.
Former Soviet-bloc NATO members Bulgaria and Slovakia also still have Soviet-made fighter jets in their air forces.
Poland’s decision to publicly float its plan came the day before Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to depart for Warsaw for talks with Polish officials. The disconnect is likely to cast an awkward layer to the talks, which were expected to focus largely on US efforts to help Poland and other eastern European nations that have taken in some 2 million refugees since the war started less than two weeks ago.
The handover of Poland’s 28 Soviet-made MiG-29s would signal Western resolve to do more to deter Russia. Militarily, it would be unlikely to be a game-changer. The number of aircraft is relatively small. The MiG-29s also are inferior to more sophisticated Russian aircraft and could be easy prey for Russian pilots and Russian missiles.
Russia has warned that supporting Ukraine’s air force would be seen in Moscow as participating in the conflict and open up suppliers to possible retaliation.
It would also weaken Poland’s own air force at a time of heightened danger in Eastern Europe.
A transfer of the MiGs to Ukraine is fraught with complications as neither NATO nor the European Union want to be seen as directly involved in the transaction, which will significantly raise already extreme tensions with Russia. The US has no plan to directly transfer the planes to Ukraine.
In order to maintain the pretense that NATO and the EU are not direct participants in the Ukraine conflict, US and Polish officials have been considering a variety of options. One begins with the “donation” of Poland’s MiGs to the United States, as Poland announced on Tuesday.
Under one scenario that has been floated, Poland would deliver the fighter jets to the US base in Germany, where they would be repainted and flown to a non-NATO, non-European Union country. Ukrainian pilots would then come to fly them to Ukraine, under that proposal.
No country has been publicly identified as a transit point, but Kosovo, a non-aligned country that is very friendly with the United States, has been mentioned as one of several nations that might be willing to serve as a middleman.
Poland had been asking for the US to provide it with F-16 fighter jets to replace the MiGs.
F-16 production is backlogged, however, and the next recipient in line for new deliveries is Taiwan, which is facing renewed threats from China and has strong support from both parties in Congress.
In its statement, the Polish government specifically asked for “used” planes, a distinction that would allow the Biden administration to bypass congressional opposition to making Taiwan wait to receive its F-16s.
Earlier Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said his country would stand by Poland if it handed over the jets, noting that it could face the “direct consequence” of its decision.
“And so we would protect Poland, we’ll help them with anything that they need,” Wallace said on Sky News.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said any decision about delivering offensive weapons must be made unanimously by NATO members.
“This is why we are able to give all of our fleet of jet fighters to Ramstein, but we are not ready to make any moves on our own because … we are not a party to this war,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he believed the aid that Congress hopes to approve later this week for Ukraine will include loan guarantees to help NATO allies replenish their air forces after giving MiGs to Ukraine.
LONDON: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, invoking the wartime defiance of British prime minister Winston Churchill, vowed Tuesday to “fight to the end” in a historic virtual speech to UK lawmakers.
“We will not give up and we will not lose,” he said, giving a day-by-day account of Russia’s invasion that dwelt on the costs in lives of civilians including Ukrainian children.
“We will fight to the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.
“We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets,” he told the packed chamber, which greeted him with a standing ovation at the start and rose again at the end.
The speech was a conscious echo of Churchill’s landmark address to the House of Commons in June 1940, after British forces were forced to retreat from France in the face of a Nazi German onslaught.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” Churchill said after the retreat at Dunkirk.
Zelensky, wearing a military-green T-shirt and sitting next to Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag, also invoked William Shakespeare as he delivered the chamber’s first-ever virtual speech by a foreign leader.
“The question for us now is, to be or not to be,” he said in his 10-minute speech, which followed similar addresses to members of the US Congress and the European Parliament.
“Now I can give you a definitive answer: it is yes, to be.”
Zelensky, while thanking Western countries for their retaliation against Russia, also noted that NATO had failed to accede to his demands to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Appealing directly to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he said: “But please increase the pressure of sanctions against this country. And please recognize this country as a terrorist state.
“And please make sure that our skies are safe.
“Please make sure that you do what needs to be done and what is stipulated by the greatness of your country.”
In response, Johnson said “never before in all our centuries of parliamentary democracy has the House listened to such an address.”
“He has moved the hearts of everybody in this House,” he said, vowing that the West would press on with arms supplies to Ukraine and further sanctions, after the US and UK announced a ban on Russian oil.
But in common with other Western leaders, Johnson has warned that NATO enforcement of a no-fly zone would risk all-out war with nuclear-armed Russia.
Speeches by foreign heads of state are a rare occurrence in the “mother of all parliaments,” and standing ovations are rarer still.
The last such speech was in October 2018, when Dutch King Willem-Alexander addressed a joint sitting of the Commons and House of Lords, in person.
Zelensky’s address came after Ukraine’s ambassador in London, Vadym Prystaiko, received a minute-long standing ovation from MPs when he attended the lower chamber on March 2.
Zelensky has been in daily contact with Western leaders since Russia launched its shock invasion on February 24, eliciting public sympathy if not all he wants in terms of practical support.
On March 5, Zelensky addressed nearly 300 members of the US Congress by Zoom to plead for financial aid and the delivery of Soviet-era planes from NATO members in eastern Europe.
He addressed the European Parliament on March 1 and gave an emotional plea for Ukraine to be given “immediate” EU membership.
Then, the English translator choked up as Zelensky described how civilians had been killed in Russia’s bombardment of his cities.