UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned the growing global food crisis has reached emergency proportions. Ban Ki-moon said the international community needs to take urgent action in order to avert a larger political and global security crisis. On Monday, President Bush ordered the release of $200 million in emergency food aid to help alleviate food shortages in developing countries. The World Bank estimates world food prices have risen 80 percent over the past three years and that at least thirty-three countries face social unrest as a result.
In Bangladesh at least 15,000 garment factory workers went on strike earlier today to call for higher wages to cover the soaring price of food. In South Africa, the country’s main union has kicked off a series of protests over increasing food prices. In recent weeks food riots have also erupted in Haiti, Niger, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. Protests have flared in Morocco, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mexico and Yemen.
Here in the United States, food inflation has reached its highest level in seventeen years, and analysts expect it to get worse.
In news from Iraq, the US military has announced it plans to release the Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein on Wednesday after holding him without charge for two years. Last week, an Iraqi judicial committee called for Hussein’s release. The US military claimed Hussein had links to Iraqi insurgents, but charges were never filed against the Iraqi-born photographer. Throughout his incarceration, Hussein maintained he is innocent. Last month, AP president Tom Curley said, “We believe Bilal’s detention was part of a sweep of photographers by the military and was intended to prevent coverage of a part of the war that was not going well.”
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops have rescued a British journalist working for CBS News who had been kidnapped two months ago in southern Iraq. Richard Butler was working as a producer for 60 Minutes when he and a translator were taken by gunmen in Basra on February 10. CBS had refrained from releasing the men’s identities or details surrounding their disappearance, pending their safe release. The translator was released last month.
On the campaign trail, Senator Hillary Clinton and John McCain are continuing to attack Senator Barack Obama over his comments that voters in rural America had become bitter and that they cling to guns or religion as a way to explain their frustrations. On Monday, Senator Hillary Clinton spoke at the Alliance for American Manufacturing Forum in Pittsburgh.
Sen. Clinton: “He was explaining to a small group of his donors what people who live in small towns right here in Pennsylvania are like and why some of you aren’t voting for him. But instead of looking at himself, he blamed them. He said that they cling to religion and guns and dislike people who are different from them. Well, I don’t believe that. I believe that people don’t cling to religion; they value their faith. You don’t cling to guns; you enjoy hunting or collecting or sport shooting. I don’t think he really gets it, that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you.”
Sen. McCain described Sen. Obama’s remarks as “elitist” and said they show a “fundamental misunderstanding of the American people.” Senator Obama countered the criticism by questioning whether Clinton and McCain are actually in touch with the voters of Pennsylvania.
Sen. Obama: “You know, there’s been a lot of talk in this campaign lately over the last few days about who’s 'in touch' with the workers in Pennsylvania. Senator Clinton and Senator McCain seem to be singing from the same hymn book, saying I’m 'out of touch,' I’m an 'elitist,' because I said a lot of folks are bitter about their economic circumstances. Now, it may be that I chose my words badly. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last. But when I hear my opponents, both of whom spent decades in Washington, saying I’m out of touch, it’s time to cut through the rhetoric and look at the reality.”
In other campaign news, a Republican Congressman is coming under criticism for calling Obama a “boy” during a campaign fundraiser. Congressman Geoff Davis of Kentucky questioned Obama’s fitness to be president and said, “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button.” A spokesperson for Davis claimed that the remark was not meant to be racist.
In business news, Delta and Northwest have agreed to merge to create the world’s largest airline. The move, if approved by regulators, could trigger a wave of industry consolidation, fare increases and reductions in services. Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar has vowed to try to block the merger. Labor unions have also criticized the deal. The merger comes amid one of the airline industry’s most tumultuous periods. Three airlines recently collapsed, and American Airlines was forced to cancel thousands of flights last week due to safety concerns.
Former President Jimmy Carter has announced plans to go ahead with his plans to meet with the top leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus despite protests from the Israeli government. Carter says he wants to get Hamas to agree to a peaceful resolution of differences, both with the Israelis and the rival Palestinian faction Fatah. Carter is meeting with Palestinian officials today in the West Bank, but Israel has refused to allow him to enter Gaza.
Jimmy Carter: “Well, I haven’t been able to get permission to go into Gaza. I would like to. I asked for permission, but I was turned down. But maybe we can find a way to circumvent that. I was in Sderot yesterday, and I don’t approve of rockets being fired, you know, that might very well hit civilians, and I don’t approve of the killing of innocent people in Gaza either by Israeli bombs and missiles. So that’s what, you know, the Carter Center is — our major purpose is to bring peace to people who are in conflict.”
Israel’s Shin Bet security service has also refused to offer security for Carter’s visit to the occupied West Bank, as is customary during such visits by former US presidents.
In other world news, the conservative Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi is set to become prime minister of Italy again after a sweeping victory in national elections. Berlusconi was voted out of office in 2006 in part because of his support for the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In Nepal, former Maoist rebels have won more than half of the directly elected seats in the new Constituent Assembly in the country’s landmark elections. The Maoists said the abolition of Nepal’s monarchy is now inevitable. Once the Constituent Assembly convenes, it is expected to quickly declare Nepal a republic and officially end the monarchy.
In Zimbabwe, opposition leaders are calling for a general strike to protest the presidential election stalemate. Zimbabwe’s ruling government has refused to release the official results from last month’s election. Members of the Movement for Democratic Change urged residents of Zimbabwe to take part in the strike.
Thokozani Khupe, Movement for Democratic Change: “The national executive council that’s resolved to stage a mass stay in. We are therefore calling upon the public to speak out against the arrogance of ZEC in its failure to release the presidential results. What we want is for ZEC to announce the results, and we are prepared to stay away until the results have been announced.”
Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Washington today for a five-day visit to the United States, his first since he was elected Pope in 2005. President Bush and the First Lady are scheduled to greet the Pope at Andrew Air Force base this afternoon. Benedict is expected to address the issue of the priest abuse scandal when he speaks at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but the Pope is not scheduled to meet with any of the victims of the abuse scandal. Mark Serrano of the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests criticized the Pope for failing to hold priests accountable for the sex abuse scandal.
Mark Serrano: “So, I mean, there is no safety for children in the Catholic church until the Pope holds bishops accountable. And the Pope not only will not hold them accountable today, the Pope, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had the chance to do it for two decades and didn’t. He contributed to the cover-up. The Pope is part of the problem.”
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 priests, nuns and lay members of the Catholic Church have sent the Pope a letter urging him not to visit President Bush at the White House as a sign of protest over the Iraq war. The letter reads in part, “There are many, both within the Church and outside of it, who long for your voice to speak for those innocent dead and — face to face with those whose policies denied all respect for their lives — demand that the killing stop.” Signatories include Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Father Daniel Berrigan and Kathy Kelly.
And Four American documentary filmmakers and a Nigerian citizen have been arrested by the Nigerian military in the Niger Delta. The Seattle-based crew has been detained since Saturday. The film crew was finishing work on the documentary Sweet Crude. Arrested were director Sandy Cioffi and crew members Tammi Sims, Cliff Worsham and Sean Porter, as well as Joel Bisina, founder of the Niger Delta Professionals for Development. Sandy Cioffi appeared on Democracy Now! in 2006 to discuss the situation in the Niger Delta and the role women played in protesting multinational oil corporations.
Sandy Cioffi: “And those women were demanding fairly basic things, like jobs, some remediation of the environment, water, electricity, healthcare, basic infrastructure that you would expect, that if you have $38 billion annually of revenue going to your government, that you would have, and they have none of those things. In fact, they have quite the opposite. They have their livelihood taken away from them.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Nigeria to immediately release Sandy Cioffi and the four other members of her crew and to end what it described as a pattern of censorship of the conflict over oil in the region.