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Under US pressure, UN agrees on deep cuts to peacekeeping
By Carole LANDRY
United Nations, United States (AFP) June 29, 2017

Provocateur Ai Weiwei taunts US with activist piece
Washington (AFP) June 28, 2017 - Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is blunt. When he wanted to make a political statement about crackdowns on dissent, he brought portraits of 176 political prisoners to one of America's most infamous high-security federal prisons.

"Trace," first shown at Alcatraz prison off the San Francisco Bay in 2014, opened Wednesday in Washington for a six-month run at the Hirshhorn museum.

More than 1.2 million Lego bricks were assembled by hand to form the individual portraits, arranged on the floor in Ai's latest subversion of readymade materials.

Several of the "prisoners of conscience" chosen by Ai -- himself held under house arrest without charge for three months in 2011 and banned from traveling outside China until 2015 -- are likely to trigger debate in the United States.

Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, behind some of the biggest leaks of classified documents in US history, share the first of six zones of 30 portraits with historical figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen and British resident held at Guantanamo Bay without trial or charge for more than 13 years until 2015.

One of the "Trace" protagonists, former CIA officer turned whistleblower John Kiriakou, was among those who attended Ai's first ever public talk in Washington late Tuesday.

The artist -- who was interrogated more than 50 times during his house arrest for alleged tax evasion -- explained he had "wanted to do something related to prisoners who lost their freedom because of their beliefs, because they had different ideas or opinions."

"I have this understanding about why certain society doesn't like art, or hate people who have this freedom in terms of thinking or expressing themselves," said Ai. "But for me, this is the most important part of art."

- Alpaca motif -

Among the public figures featured in "Trace" is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, long praised for her pro-democracy work in Myanmar but, since leading the government, accused of complacency toward the country's still powerful military and silence on the repression of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Other portraits feature dissidents from China, elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East who are less familiar to the Western public, such as Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, Laotian pro-democracy advocate Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Tibetan Buddhist monk Jigme Gyatso.

"Today, you can see his art, his life, his political activism as one and the same overarching conceptual project," Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu told AFP.

While Ai professes a connection to the political prisoners due to his own activism that helped make him an international brand -- and the price China has made him pay for it -- the injustices the activists have faced are barely brushed upon in the brief biographical texts that accompany the portraits.

A specially commissioned graphic wallpaper that wraps around a 700-foot (210-meter) gallery space in the circular museum appears highly decorative at first.

Come closer, and surveillance cameras, handcuffs and Twitter birds emerge, a nod to Ai's very active use of social media that has angered Beijing.

And then there are grinning alpaca-like creatures adopted by Chinese internet users as a mascot for freedom of expression.

On their chests, Ai inscribed the Mandarin words "cao ni ma" (literally, "grass mud horse," a mythical creature resembling an alpaca, but also "fuck your mother").

"The freedoms that are entailed in social media and even technology are maybe something that we need to pay more attention to," Chiu told AFP.

"There's no space that's entirely free."

A deal on cutting nearly $600 million from the UN peacekeeping budget was reached Wednesday following weeks of negotiations over US demands for sharp cost reductions, UN diplomats said.

Under the deal reached by a General Assembly budget committee, the United Nations will spend $7.3 billion on peacekeeping in the coming year, down from the current $7.87 billion -- roughly a seven percent cut -- according to diplomats familiar with the negotiations.

The United States, the biggest financial contributor to peacekeeping, had sought a nearly $1 billion cut to the bill and the European Union had also pushed for savings to bring costs down to $7.3 billion.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley claimed victory in a statement, saying "just five months into our time here, we've already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the UN peacekeeping budget and we're only getting started."

Hardest hit by the cuts will be the UN missions in Sudan's troubled region of Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the two costliest operations with budgets that run over $1 billion.

A Security Council diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said however there will be "cuts across the board" in the 13 peacekeeping missions as a result of US pressure.

Washington pays 28.5 percent of the peacekeeping budget and 22 percent of the UN's core budget of $5.4 billion.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the deal will allow UN missions to "fully implement their mandate while being more efficient."

"The savings proposed in this budget have been carefully targeted," said Delattre.

The deal falls short of the request from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who had asked for $7.97 billion for the annual budget which runs from July 1 to June 30 of next year.

It also is less than what African countries had proposed: they wanted $7.7 billion for the UN missions.

The deal is expected to be approved by the UN General Assembly on Friday.

- Big cuts to Darfur mission -

The Security Council is expected to vote as early as Thursday on significant cuts to the 17,000-strong joint African Union-UN mission in Darfur known as UNAMID.

Britain on Wednesday circulated a draft resolution that provides for a two-stage drawdown over the next 12 months, in line with the recommendations of a joint AU-UN report released last month.

The measure would cut UNAMID force levels to reach 8,735 troops and 2,500 police by June 2018, a 44 percent cut in military personnel and nearly 30 percent in police, according to the draft text obtained by AFP.

The drawdown could be reviewed if the Sudanese government fails to ensure protection in those areas from where the peacekeepers will withdraw.

Under the proposed measure, Guterres will report to the council after six months on whether "conditions on the ground remain conducive to further reductions."

The draft resolution welcomes a "reduction in military confrontations between government forces and rebel groups," but rights groups maintain that the conflict in Darfur is far from over.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the proposed cuts as "misguided," saying civilians in Darfur still need protection.

Darfur has been engulfed in conflict since 2003, when ethnic minority insurgents mounted a rebellion against President Omar al-Bashir, complaining that his Arab-dominated government was marginalizing the region.

The United Nations has shut down its mission in Ivory Coast and is planning to pull its peacekeepers out of Haiti in the coming months.

France late Wednesday circulated a draft resolution on renewing the UN mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, but no cuts are planned.

The mission would continue to operate with 13,289 troops and 1,920 police, according to the draft resolution seen by AFP.

A vote on renewing the Mali mission could take place on Thursday.

China protests alleged Indian border incursion
Beijing (AFP) June 27, 2017
China has made a formal protest after accusing Indian border guards of crossing from Sikkim state into its Tibetan territory, China's foreign ministry said Tuesday. India and China have long been embroiled in a bitter border dispute at both ends of the Himalayas, with the two countries accusing soldiers of crossing over into the other's territory. "Our position to uphold our territorial ... read more

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