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U.N. Issues Urgent Appeal for Somalia Famine

The United Nations has issued an urgent appeal for $300 million within two months to stop the famine in Somalia from getting worse. Tens of thousands of people have already died and nearly half of Somalia’s population — 3.7 million people — are in danger, the vast majority in the south. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for immediate aid.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "Humanitarian agencies need urgent funding to save lives. If funding is not made available for humanitarian interventions now, the famine is likely to continue and spread. The overall requirement is $1.6 billion for Somalia. Roughly 300 million U.S. dollars is needed in the next two months to provide an adequate response to famine-affected areas. Children and adults are dying at an appalling rate. Every day of delay will cost more lives."

The United Nations says 11.3 million are in need of immediate food assistance, including 500,000 children at risk of death. Speaking from Ethiopia, World Food Programme head Josette Sheeran said the severity of the threat to children makes the relief effort unprecedented.

Josette Sheeran: "This will be our largest-ever emergency operation of supplementary foods to reach children, and we are currently tapping in all possible supplies, not only locally and regionally, but throughout the world, to scale those up, as we see the deepening effects of this drought. It’s very important that we not lose a generation, because for those children who make it who have been denied adequate nutrition, the potential for harm is quite high if they’re denied critical nutrition at this time."

Aid Groups: Rich Nations Failed to Avert Somalia Crisis

Aid operations are resuming in southern Somalia after the militant group, al-Shabab, lifted a ban that had wiped out foreign humanitarian assistance. Although the al-Shabab ban was widely denounced, aid groups are also criticizing Western nations for what they call a lackluster effort to help avert the crisis despite dire warnings in advance. The Horn of Africa has been ravaged by high food prices, violence and the driest conditions in decades. Pointing to the virtual eradication of livestock in the Horn of Africa, the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad said, "Once again our belated response is a vast operation to feed the starving, having failed to protect their livelihoods."

U.N.: Less Than Half of Africa Appeals Met

The urgent request for Somalia comes amidst warnings donor countries are failing to meet appeals for crises affecting a number of African countries. United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said less than half of the aid sought for Africa has been delivered.

Valerie Amos: "To date, we have received $3.6 billion, covering 45 percent of requirements, with $4.3 billion still needed. Our key concern is that there are persistent imbalances in funding among crises. The funding percentages of different appeals range from 29 percent to 60 percent. The least-funded appeals are the regional appeal for West Africa and the appeals for Zimbabwe, Djibouti and Niger."

The aid group Oxfam International says the world’s richest nations have practiced "willful neglect" in under-funding aid appeals for Africa and ignoring warnings of impending food shortages going back to January.

Sanders Blasts Entitlement Cuts, Tax Cuts in Deficit Talks

Talks continue in Washington as the Obama administration and congressional leaders race to finalize an agreement on raising the federal debt ceiling. On Wednesday, the White House acknowledged for the first time it could accept a short-term hike to the deficit ceiling to extend the August 2 deadline by a few days. President Obama met with Republican leaders on Wednesday night with a plan to cut as much as $4 trillion in federal spending back into play. Obama is now backing a bipartisan Senate budget plan that would overhaul Social Security and Medicare, while cutting taxes on the wealthy. In addition to entitlement cuts, the so-called "Gang of Six" plan would eliminate a number of popular tax breaks and deductions, including write-offs for home mortgage interest and employer-provided health benefits. The savings would help offset the cost of then lowering the top individual and corporate tax rates from 35 percent to at least 29 percent. Speaking on the Senate floor, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont mockingly congratulated Republicans for President Obama’s apparent willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: "[Republicans] have stood firm in their desire to represent the wealthy and the powerful and multinational corporations. They have threatened. They have been very smart in a number of ways. They have been determined. And at the end of the day, they will get 80 or 90 percent of what they want. That is their victory, and I congratulate them on their victory. Unfortunately, their victory will be a disaster for working families in this country, for the elderly, for the sick, for the children, and for low-income people."

Murdoch Returns to U.S., Cameron Refuses to Apologize for Coulson Hiring

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has returned to the United States as his media empire faces a growing number of challenges over the phone-hacking scandal that has led to a number of arrests in Britain and prompted an investigation here in the United States. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron appeared before an emergency session of Parliament to address the scandal. Cameron refused to apologize for hiring Andy Coulson, a former Murdoch employee, who recently served as Cameron’s communications chief at Downing Street.

British Prime Minister David Cameron: "If it turns out Andy Coulson knew about the hacking at the News of the World, he will not only have lied to me, but he would have lied to the police, to a select committee, to the Press Complaints Commission, and of course perjured himself in a court of law. More to the point, if that comes to pass, he could also expect to face severe criminal charges. I have an old-fashioned view about 'innocent until proven guilty.' But if it turns out I’ve been lied to, that would be a moment for a profound apology, and in that event, I can tell you I will not fall short."

Texas Executes Death Row Prisoner over Victim’s Objection

Texas has executed a death row prisoner, despite the objections of one of his victims. Mark Stroman was killed by lethal injection on Wednesday for a 2001 shooting spree that left two people dead and another injured. The wounded survivor, Rais Bhuiyan, had sued Texas Gov. Rick Perry to stop the execution, arguing Stroman’s attack was rooted in ignorance. Stroman was an Aryan Brotherhood member who claimed the death of his half-sister in the 9/11 attacks had fueled his rampage. All of Stroman’s victims were from India or Pakistan. Speaking on Democracy Now! earlier this week, Bhuiyan cited his own Muslim beliefs espousing forgiveness.

Rais Bhuiyan: "I strongly believe what Mark Stroman did, that it was hate — I mean, that it was hate crime because of his ignorance, and he was not capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. Otherwise, he would not have done what he did. The way my parents raised me, and my Islamic faith teaches me, that he is the best who can forgive easily. And my faith teaches that no one has a right to take another human life."

Georgia Delays Death Row Execution

Georgia has delayed the lethal injection of a death row prisoner whose death is set to be the first videotaped execution in nearly two decades. Another death row prisoner has won a court order to videotape Andrew Grant DeYoung’s execution over concerns drugs used in the process might cause unnecessary suffering.

Media Ban Imposed as California Prison Hunger Strike Enters 4th Week

More than 400 California prisoners are entering the fourth week of hunger strike in protest of what they allege to be cruel and unusual conditions. Dozens have reportedly lost between 20 and 25 pounds as health conditions deteriorate. The prisoners are demanding a number of changes in the prison system already standard practice in other parts of the country, including an end to group punishment, denial of food as punishment, and ending long-term solitary confinement. The strike began in the Pelican Bay maximum security facility near the Oregon border and has drawn the support of thousands of prisoners throughout California. Pelican Bay prisoner Todd Ashker spoke out in an audio recording earlier this month.

Todd Ashker: "We believe that this is our only option of ever trying to make some kind of positive changes here, is through this peaceful protest of hunger strike. And there is a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary. None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no other option. And we’re just hoping for the best."

Media groups have criticized California prison officials for barring journalists from meeting with the striking Pelican prisoners, citing "security and safety issues."

Obama Admin Backs Repeal of DOMA

The Obama administration is backing a new congressional measure that would repeal the anti-LGBT 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which denies federal recognition of gay marriage. The new "Respect for Marriage Act" was introduced following the White House’s surprise announcement it would stop defending DOMA in court earlier this year. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese urged lawmakers to back DOMA’s repeal.

Joe Solmonese: "DOMA means that the many protections the federal government provides for the health and security of American families remains out of reach for same-sex couples and their children. It keeps, for instance, gay and lesbian Americans from sponsoring their spouses for immigration to the United States, forcing bi-national couples to choose between love and country."

House Measure Would Restore Global Gag Rule

Human Rights Watch is urging lawmakers to oppose a pending measure that would restore the Global Gag Rule banning U.S. funding for any international healthcare organization that performs abortions or advocates for the legalization of abortion, even if those activities are funded by non-U.S. money. The Global Gag Rule was seen by many as a major global barrier to access to crucial women’s health services before President Obama lifted it upon taking office. In a statement, Meghan Rhoad, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, "The Global Gag Rule has exacted a terrible cost in damage to the health of millions of women and the free speech rights of people around the world... It should be considered a shameful piece of past foreign policy, not a model for the future."

Montana Judge Blocks Movement of Oil Equipment

A Montana judge has halted the transportation of massive oilfield equipment across the state’s roads. Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, has been barred from using Montana’s scenic highways to transport hundreds of tons of equipment to Alberta, Canada, for a controversial tar sands pipeline project. The National Wildlife Federation, Missoula County and a number of conservation groups had argued oil companies and the U.S. Department of Transportation had failed to attain the necessary environmental clearances.

NLRB Judge: SEIU, Kaiser Colluded to Influence Union Vote

The National Labor Relations Board has recommended the cancellation of the results of an election last year between two unions to represent 43,000 employees in California’s largest hospital chain, Kaiser Permanente. The giant Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, beat out the much smaller breakaway National Union of Health Workers, or NUHW, in a bitterly contest race. But a National Labor Relations Board judge has now ruled SEIU was guilty of misconduct and collusion with Kaiser Permanente to influence the vote’s outcome.

U.S. Heat Wave Kills 22, Engulfs East

The U.S. heat wave that has so far claimed 22 lives in the Midwest has made its way to the East Coast. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some 141 million people in a one-million-square-mile area found themselves under heat advisories and warnings, meaning nearly half the country is now dealing with the extreme weather.

China, Russia Stall Security Council Session on Climate Change

The world’s most powerful nations have failed to advance a measure that would bring the issue of climate change before the United Nations Security Council. The effort was stalled Wednesday after Russia and China insisted that climate is outside the Security Council’s mandate. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, criticized their stance.

Susan Rice: "We have dozens of countries in this body and in this very room whose very existence is threatened. They have asked this Council to demonstrate our understanding that their security is profoundly threatened. Instead, because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this Council is saying, by its silence, in effect, tough luck. This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic, it’s short-sighted, and frankly, it’s a dereliction of duty."

Ortega Proposes Nicaraguan Referendum on $17B World Court Judgment from U.S.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is proposing a national referendum on whether to demand the United States pay up the $17 billion owed under a 1986 World Court judgment that found the former Ronald Reagan administration had committed unlawful aggression. The ruling centered around the U.S. support for Contra militants who killed thousands of people in trying to topple the Sandinista government. Nicaragua dropped its demand for the United States to respect the judgment after a U.S.-backed government came into office following a decade of economic and armed warfare.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega: "Let the U.S. honor this debt and not say they won’t pay, as they have been saying in the past that they won’t pay. At least the Yankee representative here has said they won’t pay. The President has not said it, but the Yankee representative here has. I would like to propose that we call for a referendum so that the Nicaraguan people decide if this debt between the Nicaraguan people and the U.S. government should be charged or not."

Serbia Arrests Last Major War Crimes Fugitive

Serbian authorities have arrested the last major war crimes fugitive from the 1990s violence in former Yugoslavia. Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic was arrested in a mountainous northern region of Serbia after two decades on the run. Indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2004, Hadzic was wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including "persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, extermination, murder, torture, deportation and forcible transfer," as well as "wanton destruction or devastation." At The Hague, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Serge Brammertz, welcomed Hadzic’s arrest.

Serge Brammertz: "We are of course very pleased that this last arrest has taken place. It was very important for the victims, of course. As you know, Hadzic was at large for a number of years, so it’s very important for the victims in Croatia, who will finally see justice being done, and of course very important for the Tribunal because he was the last fugitive out of 161 persons indicted."

More than 10,000 people died before the Croatian war came to an end in 1995.

Judge Allows Closure of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant

Earlier this week, a federal judge denied a request for an injunction from owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to keep the facility online past its deadline to close down when its 40-year contract license expires next year. Although the Vermont Senate voted to deny the company a new operating license last year, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission opted to extend the plant’s license for 20 more years, in the days following the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The heart of the dispute is whether a state has a right to close down a federally permitted facility. An appeal is expected from the Vermont Yankee owners, who are a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, the second largest nuclear power plant operator in the United States. The Vermont Yankee plant is one of the oldest in the country and has had a series of radioactive tritium leaks. Vermont’s attempt to closure the facility marks the first time a state has moved to shut down a reactor in more than 20 years. The case could affect nuclear policy across the United States as dozens of other aging nuclear plants seek renewed operating licenses in upcoming years.

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