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Oscar-Nominated Documentaries Highlight Refugee Crisis

Two documentaries on the plight of refugees off the Italian coast and the Greek coast have received Oscar nominations this year. “Fire at Sea,” by Gianfranco Rosi has been selected in the Feature Documentary category and “4.1 Miles” by Daphne Matziaraki has been nominated in the Short Documentary category. VOA’s Penelope Poulou spoke with Rosi about his film and how these documentaries bring public awareness to the refugees crisis in a tough political climate.

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Russia’s Long-time UN Ambassador Dies Suddenly

Russia’s long-time U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin died suddenly Monday in New York, a day before he would have turned 65 years old.


The Russian foreign ministry announced his death in a statement, giving no details on the circumstances.  The president of the U.N. General Assembly, Peter Thomson, told VOA that he was informed Churkin had “some sort of cardiac arrest” at the Russian Mission and was taken to the hospital, where he died.


Fellow U.N. diplomats immediately took to social media to express their shock and sadness at his sudden passing.

“Absolutely devastated to hear that my friend & colleague Vitaly Churkin has died,” tweeted Britain’s U.N. envoy Matthew Rycroft. “A diplomatic giant & wonderful character. RIP” he added.


“Shocked to learn of the passing of our dear colleague Vitaly Churkin,” Sweden’s U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog wrote. “He will be deeply missed. Deepest condolences to his family.”

The new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, paid tribute to a “gracious colleague.”

“We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country’s positions with great skill. We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to lift up his family and to the Russian people,” she said in a statement.

General Assembly President Thomson called for a minute of silence during an afternoon meeting at U.N. headquarters. In emotional remarks, he said “not only has Russia lost one of its truest sons here at the United Nations, we have lost one of our truest.”

“His name shall live on in the annals of this organization’s history,” Thomson said.

WATCH: UN’s Thomson: Churkin’s Name Will Live on in UN History

Kenya’s ambassador, Macharia Kamau, described Churkin as “a very calm and purposeful diplomat” and praised him for understanding the problems of smaller countries, not just big ones.

“He was a deeply experienced and able diplomat, a defender of his country, a believer in the multilateral system and the work of the United Nations, and someone who we all respected and cherished very much,” UAE Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh said.

Road to diplomacy

Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin was born in Moscow on Feb. 21, 1952. As a young boy he appeared in at least three films – two were about Vladimir Lenin.


He later was a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from the USSR Diplomatic Academy.


Churkin had a distinguished career as a Russian diplomat, joining the foreign ministry in 1974. He was his government’s Special Representative to the talks on Former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and later served as ambassador to Belgium (1994-1998) and Canada (1998-2003).


U.N. posting


In 2006, he presented his credentials to then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan and took up his post as U.N. ambassador, which he held until his death. In the more than a decade Churkin was envoy to the world body, he was widely respected by colleagues, even those whose governments had adversarial relationships with Moscow.


In the past six years, his job grew more difficult as Moscow became more isolated due to its annexation of the Crimea and its support for the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.


He often clashed in the Security Council chamber with former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. At a heated council meeting in December on the situation in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, Power called out Moscow for denying and obfuscating facts and aiding and abetting attacks on civilians. Churkin retorted that she sounded like “Mother Theresa” for scolding Moscow and urged her to “remember the track record of your country.”

Churkin was known as a tough negotiator and a top-notch diplomat. Many expected he would be appointed foreign minister if Sergei Lavrov retired.


Vitaly Churkin is survived by his wife, Irina, and two adult children.

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AP Source: Trump’s Revised Travel Ban Targets Same Countries

A draft of President Donald Trump’s revised immigration ban targets the same seven countries listed in his original executive order and exempts travelers who already have a visa to travel to the U.S., even if they haven’t used it yet.

A senior administration official said the order, which Trump revised after federal courts held up his original immigration and refugee ban, will target only those same seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya.

The official said that green-card holders and dual citizens of the U.S. and any of those countries are exempt. The new draft also no longer directs authorities to single out – and reject – Syrian refugees when processing new visa applications.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the order before it’s made public. The official noted that the draft is subject to change ahead of its signing, which Trump said could come sometime this week.

Asked about the revised order, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the document circulating was a draft and that a final version should be released soon. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the current draft of the revised order focused on the seven countries but excluded those with green cards.

Trump’s original executive order triggered chaos at airports around the world, as travelers were detained when the order rapidly went into effect, U.S. permanent residents known as green-card holders among them. Attorneys provided legal assistance to those held and protesters descended on the airports as news of the order’s implementation spread. In its original form, the order temporarily suspended all travel to the U.S. for citizens of those seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days.

The original order also called for Homeland Security and State department officials, along with the director of national intelligence, to review what information the government needs to fully vet would-be visitors and come up with a list of countries that can’t or won’t make the information available. It said the government will give countries 60 days to start providing the information or citizens from those countries will be barred from traveling to the United States.

Even if Syrian refugees are no longer automatically rejected under the new order, the pace of refugees entering the U.S. from all countries is likely to slow significantly. That’s because even when the courts put Trump’s original ban on hold, they left untouched Trump’s 50,000-per-year refugee cap, a cut of more than half from the cap under the Obama administration.

The U.S. has already taken in more than 35,000 refugees this year, leaving less than 15,000 spots before hitting Trump’s cap, according to a U.S. official. That means that for the rest of this fiscal year, the number of refugees being let in per week will likely fall to a fraction of what it had been under the Obama administration’s cap of 110,000.

Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to reinstate Trump’s ban, unanimously rejecting the administration’s claim of presidential authority, questioning its motives and concluding that the order was unlikely to survive legal challenges. The pushback prompted Trump to tweet “SEE YOU IN COURT!” and he has since lashed out at the judicial branch, accusing it of issuing a politically motivated decision.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Saturday that Trump is working on a “streamlined” version of his executive order banning travel from the seven nations to iron out the difficulties that landed his first order in the courts.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference about combating terrorism, Kelly said Trump’s original order was designed as a “temporary pause” to allow him to “see where our immigration and vetting system has gaps – and gaps it has – that could be exploited.”

He said the Trump administration was surprised when U.S. courts blocked the executive order and now “the president is contemplating releasing a tighter, more streamlined version” of the travel ban.

Kelly said this next time he will be able to “make sure that there’s no one caught in the system of moving from overseas to our airports.”

Kelly mentioned “seven nations” again on Saturday, leading to speculation they will all be included in Trump’s next executive order.

Trump’s order sparked an immediate backlash and sowed chaos and outrage, with travelers detained at airports, panicked families searching for relatives and protesters marching against the sweeping measure – parts of which were blocked by several federal courts.

Protests were held across the country, including in sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York City, and at international airports where travelers were temporarily detained.

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VP Pence Reassures Europe US Remains Staunch Ally

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence says he is looking “very much forward” to his talks Monday with European Union and NATO leaders. 

Pence is on his first trip to Europe since taking office, intending to reassure allies the United States remains a staunch friend amid concerns about the new administration’s “America First” strategy. 

The vice president’s schedule includes meetings with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, EU Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. 

Mogherini said after meeting U.S. officials in Washington last week that maintaining multilateral sanctions on Russia, keeping the Iran nuclear agreement in place and addressing the refugee crisis are issues the EU would like to collaborate on with the U.S.  EU officials will also likely seek clarity on Trump’s prediction last month in two European newspaper interviews that other countries would follow Britain and leave the alliance.

In the afternoon, Pence meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to close his European trip. 

He expressed support for NATO at the alliance’s security conference Saturday in Munich, adding reassurances after Trump’s campaign statements describing NATO as “obsolete.”

“The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance,” Pence said in his first major foreign policy address for the new administration.

Pence, his wife, Karen, and daughter Charlotte visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial early Sunday.  The camp was established by the Nazi government in 1933 near Munich.

The Pence family paid tribute to the International Memorial at the center of camp, placing a wreath.  They also visited a Jewish memorial and a Catholic memorial on the grounds, toured the barracks, a crematorium, and a gas chamber.

Pence acknowledged his extremely busy schedule during a surprise meeting in Munich Saturday with rock band U2 frontman Bono. After Pence thanked Bono for “the chance to get together,” Bono said, “You’re the second busiest man on earth, so we really do appreciate it,” as onlookers laughed.

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Trump Hint of Attack in Sweden Baffles Swedes

Was there a terrorist attack in Sweden Friday night? No, but U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to suggest there had been, leaving Swedes baffled by just what the new American leader might have meant by an offhand remark.

At a campaign rally Saturday in Florida, Trump alluded to past terrorist attacks in Europe linked to open-borders immigration, saying, “You look at what’s happening in Germany. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden.”

But there were no high-profile, terror-linked events in the Scandinavian country Friday night.

Trump did not elaborate on the remark until Sunday evening, when he tweeted that he was referring to a Fox News broadcast about migrants and Sweden.

In the meantime, some Swedes mocked Trump on social media accounts using the hashtag “#LastNightinSweden.”

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt took to Twitter, saying, “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound.” Some Swedes joked that Trump might have been referring to a large meatball theft, an avalanche warning or police chasing a drunken driver.

Another Twitter user, tweaking Trump’s plans to build a border wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico to thwart illegal immigration, said that “after the terrible events” of Friday night, the giant Swedish retailer Ikea had sold out of instruction manuals on how to build border walls.

Gunnar Hokmark, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, retweeted a post that said, “#lastnightinSweden my son dropped his hotdog in the campfire. So sad!”

The Swedish embassy in Washington had asked the U.S. State Department for clarification on just what Trump was referring to.

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Europeans Wonder if Trump Will Act on Pence’s Reassurances

Vice President Mike Pence was the latest in a trio of high-ranking Trump emissaries to tell European allies in person that the United States will steadfastly support NATO and demand that Russia honor its commitments to end fighting in Ukraine.

Some European leaders, however, remain skeptical of whether Pence and the U.S. secretaries of state and defense actually speak for President Donald Trump. And they worry those declarations might easily be swept away at the whim of the mercurial American president.


“We are waiting for actions,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda. “We only know what the media has reported and the statements that we’ve got. Now we are waiting for actions of the new government of Donald Trump.”


European countries along Russia’s border have been rattled by the prospect of deeper U.S.-Russia ties after Trump bucked the opinions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders by suggesting that sanctions imposed on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine could be eased in exchange for a nuclear arms deal.


Trump also raised eyebrows when he appeared to draw parallels between Russia and the U.S. when Bill O’Reilly of Fox News referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a killer.” Trump replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”


In the days before his inauguration, Trump referred to NATO as “obsolete” in an interview, but said the 28-nation alliance remained important to him. He has since tempered his language and stressed the importance of NATO during telephone conversations with multiple foreign leaders.


Pence, making his first overseas trip as vice president, sought to allay some of those fears in Munich on Saturday, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO and promising that the U.S. would “hold Russia accountable.”


Michael Chertoff, who served as homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush, noted that Pence’s comments were in line with similar assurances given by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during a NATO meeting in Brussels earlier in the week.


“They’ve all been consistent about the fact that there is a strong, deep and enduring commitment to Europe and to NATO and I think that message has been received,” Chertoff said.


The same day Mattis was in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart in Bonn, Germany, saying afterward that Russia must adhere to a 2015 deal to end fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.


But whether Trump intends to put Pence’s words into action remained a front-and-center issue at the Munich Security Conference.


German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was pressed after Pence’s speech on whether he had doubts about Trump’s commitment to NATO.


“I have no doubts that the American vice president, and also the defense minister, will do everything to take responsibility within NATO as in the past, and I don’t think there is a big argument inside the American government,” said Gabriel, who also is Germany’s foreign minister. Asked about Trump’s commitment, he said, “Since I haven’t spoken to him, I can only say what I discussed with Mr. Pence — I did that and there are no doubts there.”


Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Pence’s words were likely reassuring to Europeans in light of the similar affirmations from Mattis and Tillerson.


“But everyone is aware that this is tentative until it is reaffirmed by the president in his own words,” Rathke said in an email. “One tweet or statement casting doubt on the Europeans or on NATO will call back into question all of what Pence and Mattis have been saying.”


Democrats are still stung by the conclusion by intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. And they have continued to argue that Trump remains a major liability on the world stage.


Wrote Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Twitter: “Looks like we have 2 governments. (at)VP just gave speech about shared values btwn US and Europe as (at)POTUS openly wages war on those values.”


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Muslim Groups Criticize Wilders’ ‘Moroccan Scum’ Comments

Muslim organizations in the Netherlands have criticized disparaging comments about Moroccans made by anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, but say they are just the latest in a long string of insults.


Launching his campaign Saturday for the Netherlands’ March 15 parliamentary election, Wilders criticized what he called “Moroccan scum” for making the Netherlands unsafe.


Ebubekir Ozture, director of the Muslim umbrella group Contact Organ Muslims and Government, on Sunday called Wilders comments “reprehensible,” but added, “It is not the first time and probably won’t be the last time,” that Wilders has used such language.


Wilders was convicted late last year of inciting discrimination and insulting a group for anti-Moroccan comments he made before and after local elections in 2014. He branded the conviction “political.” 

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US Senator Graham: Trump Must Punish Russia for Election Interference

A senior U.S. Republican senator urged President Donald Trump Sunday to take action against Russia over allegations Moscow interfered in the election that brought him to power.

U.S. intelligence officials have told Trump that Moscow tried to influence voters by hacking Democratic emails and trolling social media sites, but Trump has sought to downplay Russia’s role in the election.

Speaking to world leaders, diplomats and defense officials at the Munich Security Conference, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said Congress needs to get involved to ensure there are “consequences” for the alleged hacking.

“2017 is going to be a year of kicking Russia in the ass in Congress,” Graham said.

Referring to upcoming elections in France and Germany this year and concerns of outside interference, Graham said “I promise everybody in this room that Congress is going to take a long hard look at what Russia did to undermine our elections, so you’ll be better prepared when they come your way.”

He said he planned to introduce a bipartisan motion for new Russia sanctions and it will get “north of 75 votes.”

“My goal is to put it on Trump’s desk and I hope he’ll embrace the idea that as the leader of the free world he should be working with us to punish Russia,” Graham said.

Though the allegations are that the hacking was directed at the Democrats, Graham said “we should have an Article 5 that an attack on one party is an attack on all.” He was referring to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is seen an attack of the entire alliance.

“My biggest concern with President Trump … is that he’s never really looked the camera in the eye and said, ‘Even though it was the Democratic Party that suffered from Russian interference, I am now the leader of the free world and I can assure you they’re going to pay a price on my watch for trying to interfere in our election.'”

The conference opened Friday with criticism of Trump from another senior Republican senator, Arizona’s John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who said “more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”

Later, answering question about the ouster of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia, McCain said that the issue “is something that shows in many respects this administration is in disarray and they’ve got a lot of work to do.”

McCain, who has openly quarreled with the president, added that Trump often”contradicts himself” in his statements, and that “some of us have learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says.”

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Pence Vows ‘Unwavering’ US Commitment to Transatlantic Alliance

In his first major foreign policy speech, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said at the Munich Security Conference that America will be ‘unwavering’ in its support for the NATO alliance – but warned allies that they must step up defense spending. Amid controversy over the Trump administration’s ties to Moscow, Mr. Pence said the US would continue to hold Russia accountable. Henry Ridgwell reports from Munich.

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Merkel, Pence Vow Strong NATO Support

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed that European nations strengthen their multilateral ties, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised NATO but made no mention of the European Union, fueling concerns about America’s new approach to international affairs.

At the Munich Security Conference Saturday, Merkel delivered a speech stressing the importance of supporting organizations such as the European Union, the United Nations and NATO that have played key roles in the post-Cold War global order.

“Will we be able to continue working well together, or will we all fall back into our individual roles?” Merkel asked. “I call on us, and I hope we all find common ground on this, let’s make the world better together and then things will get better for every single one of us.”

Like Merkel, Pence expressed support for NATO and sought to address concerns raised by U.S. President Donald Trump, who once said the military alliance was “obsolete.”

“The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance,” Pence said in his first major foreign policy address for the new administration.

Although Pence made no mention of the European Union, he will have the opportunity to explain the Trump administration’s position on the 28-nation alliance when he meets with EU leaders Sunday in Brussels.

US ‘will always be your greatest ally’

Pence also sought to reduce speculation that Trump would abandon guarantees that European nations believe the U.S. would protect them from Russia.


“Today, tomorrow, and every day hence, be confident that the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally,” he said.

Pence promised the U.S. would “hold Russia accountable” amid European concerns about Russian aggression and as Trump searches for new areas of interest with Moscow. Pence said Russia must honor a 2015 peace agreement to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Shortly after Pence’s address, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an end to the world order dominated by Western nations since the end of the Cold War.

“I hope that [the world] will choose a democratic world order, a post-West one, in which each country is defined by its sovereignty,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov later said Russia wanted to build a relationship with the U.S. that would be “pragmatic with mutual respect and acknowledgement of our responsibility for global stability.”

Lavrov mentioned that the U.S. and Russia have never engaged in direct conflict, and even noted the two countries were close neighbors across the Bering Strait.    

Merkel and Pence met on the sidelines of the security conference following their speeches.  The two leaders committed to cooperate on a “wide range of global challenges” and discussed the need for NATO allies to meet what a White House statement called “burden-sharing commitments” in order to effectively deal with “21st century threats.”

Before leaving Munich for Brussels Sunday, Pence was expected to meet with leaders of countries that have the most to lose or gain from any new agreements between the U.S. and Russia. The countries include Afghanistan, Iraq, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Turkey.