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German Health Officials Note Optimistic Signs Despite Climbing COVID-19 Death Toll

As Germany on Friday surpassed 50,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, public health officials there expressed cautious optimism about a slowing infection rate. The Robert Koch Institute disease control center reported 17,862 new coronavirus cases since Thursday, bringing the total number of Germany’s infections to more than 2.1 million. FILE – The head of the Robert Koch Institute, German national agency and research institute, responsible for disease control and prevention, Lothar Wieler, briefs the media during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 14, 2021.At a news conference in Berlin, RKI president Lothar Wieler said he saw a “slightly positive trend” in the numbers after several days in the last month where daily infections rose above 20,000. He credited the drop to a partial lockdown originally introduced in November and since tightened. Weiler said he urged the government to maintain the current restrictions until Germany sees a “massive” drop in cases and deaths. Wieler told reporters the 50,642 total COVID-19 fatalities were “a distressing, incomprehensible number to me.”  Speaking at the same press conference, the president of Germany’s association for intensive care medicine, Gernot Marx, said he saw no evidence of a spike in hospitalizations from the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, which he credited to nationwide restrictions on gatherings. But Marx cautioned that while there are clearly falling numbers of patients in intensive care, the health care system is still feeling a strain. He noted on average patients on respirators are hospitalized for 25 days but others remain in treatment for 60 days or even more than 90 days.  Health Minister Jens Spahn called the falling infection and hospitalization numbers “encouraging” but warned they were “still too high.” He said COVID-19 restrictions will stay in place for now. He noted that several countries that had eased their lockdowns at the first sign of improvement “quickly saw a new flare-up.”  
 

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DC Diplomatic Corps Among Few Invited to Witness Biden Inauguration

Despite the health and security concerns that kept the usual large crowds away from this week’s swearing-in of a new American president, one Washington community was well represented at the solemn ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol – the diplomatic corps.For many of them, the ceremony was a moving reaffirmation of the strength and durability of American democracy just 14 days after an insurrection that had shaken both the nation and its allies around the world.“There are 190 ambassadors in Washington, I would say there were at least 180 ambassadors there,” Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador in the United States, told VOA in a phone interview. “I can’t imagine anybody [who’s invited] not being there, except somebody being sick or something.”Mulhall said he and the other ambassadors were seated directly in front of the Capitol where President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in. “We had a very good view,” he said. “I certainly was quite moved by the ceremony, by the president’s speech.“I kept thinking about his great-great-grandparents were born in Ireland and all of them left Ireland, in circumstances of difficulty and deprivation; and to think of their descendant becoming U.S. president was quite moving,” Mulhall said.”I see the story of the Blewitts & the Finnegans, brought to light by their great-great grandson’s extraordinary success, as emblematic of the larger saga of Irish immigrants in America.”Amb @DanMulhall’s blog on fellow poetry lover President @JoeBiden👉https://t.co/VJhNVGrTnDpic.twitter.com/0NTguqRYJu— Embassy of Ireland USA (@IrelandEmbUSA) January 20, 2021The ambassador added that an Irish violinist had played a passage written by an Irish composer during a Mass attended by Biden, family members and other luminaries at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle hours before the swearing-in.  The day before, Mulhall had met with the violinist and recorded a duet of poetry reading, accompanied by music, for the incoming president. Irish violinist Patricia Treacy came to the Embassy yesterday and we recorded this W.B. #Yeats poem, ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ which we dedicate to President @JoeBiden, a fan of Yeats’s work. Patricia will play the violin at today’s #inauguration. @culture_irelandpic.twitter.com/UvBb2Yas4V— Daniel Mulhall (@DanMulhall) January 20, 2021Martin Weiss represents Austria in Washington. Sitting right before the U.S. Capitol, he said, he was struck by the fact that this celebration of democracy was taking place on the very spot where, two weeks earlier, a riotous mob had attempted to force Congress to overturn the result of the November election.  One “can’t just forget what happened on January 6th; we all have the pictures in the back of our heads … We’ve seen the Capitol – just weeks ago, it looked very different on that day.”He observed that many speakers spoke of the tragedy and violence that took place, “but then they moved on – in a very American spirit.”“I was and am deeply moved by the United States of America and the determination of the American people,” said André Haspels, Netherlands’ ambassador, in a written response to questions from VOA. He said he was “impressed by the speed at which the government was able to adapt and produce a ceremony that served to unite the nation as the country makes its way forward.”Haspels described the U.S. Capitol as “a global symbol of democratic norms and values” and remarked that the resilience displayed by all three branches of the American government – the legislative, judicial and executive – at Wednesday’s event “should serve as notice that American democracy is strong.”Two weeks ago, America’s democracy was shaken to its core. But today, the US will show its resilience once more. It’s good to attend today’s ceremony at the Capitol, which is and will always be a worldwide symbol of democratic norms and values. #InaugurationDaypic.twitter.com/UdV8IrPGDG— André Haspels (@NLAmbassadorUSA) January 20, 2021Weiss added that he was heartened by the unity and bipartisanship at the swearing-in ceremony, led by Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Senator Roy Blunt. “After January 6th, who would have thought this was even possible?” Weiss reflected.“After such a celebratory moment, you get down to the nitty-gritty of politics, then things often get a very different tone; but this is a moment where you have speakers from the Republican party and the Democratic party, you kind of tie it all together for a moment. I think that’s so important that you see this is possible.”Envoys from around the world posted images of themselves in front of the U.S. Capitol taken on Inauguration Day.Pleasure to attend the historic ceremony ! https://t.co/TweqATUBJV— Taranjit Singh Sandhu (@SandhuTaranjitS) January 20, 2021Honored to represent the people and government of Taiwan here at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. pic.twitter.com/KSatj8vIln— Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴 (@bikhim) January 20, 2021Very honored to be attending the inauguration of @JoeBiden as President of the United States. I’m excited to work with his administration to advance a broad and dynamic Brazil-U.S. agenda. @KamalaHarris@ABlinken@Cartajuanero@JohnKerrypic.twitter.com/K53HOS1iiy— Nestor Forster Jr. (@BRAmbassadorUS) January 20, 2021“To witness history and the transfer of American power in the heart of democracy is a privilege,” Haspels said.Ambassadors from nearly 200 countries with missions in Washington didn’t receive their invitations to attend the event until last week.  Weiss said he wouldn’t have been surprised if diplomats had been advised that they would have to participate in the event virtually, as has been the case with so many events over the past year. “In corona time, nothing is taken for granted,” he said.  “I think that was a conscious choice, to include the diplomatic corps,” Weiss said, adding that he viewed the invitation from the State Department’s Office of Protocol as a diplomatic signal that “America is open for international business, for international relations.”The presence of American-born-and-raised global pop culture icons, as well as the country’s youthful energy and talent, were also on display at the inauguration and it did not go unnoticed by the envoys.Haspels said he enjoyed Lady Gaga’s rendition of the national anthem, and “a moment that resonated with me was the extraordinary poem read by the youth laureate poet, Ms. Amanda Gorman.”  Weiss said he thought “the star power” helped to “bring everyone in” and that it was nice to “not have politicians among politicians speaking political language.”  “All in all, it was a beautiful event,” he said, and a “positive and uplifting moment” for those who were there.And – what was a dignified ceremony with many striking moments and a touching speech by President Biden – has come to an end. A true honor to represent Austria on this important day.#Inauguration2021pic.twitter.com/u7xQNC7uVm— Martin Weiss (@martinoweiss) January 20, 2021  

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Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Goes Into Effect

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement welcomed the entry into force Friday of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the first nuclear disarmament instrument in more than two decades.The Treaty, endorsed by 51 states, mandates assistance, such as medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support to all victims under their jurisdiction.  It also obliges them to clear areas known to be contaminated by nuclear use or testing.“The survivors of nuclear explosions and nuclear tests offered tragic testimonies and were a moral force behind the Treaty,” Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for Guterres said in a statement.Nuclear disarmament remains the highest priority of the U.N., the statement said, adding that countries around the world must take urgent action for the elimination of such weapons and prevent the human and environmental catastrophes the use of them would cause.The Secretary-General is calling on all states “to work together to realize this ambition to advance common security and collective safety,” the statement said.“Today is a victory for humanity. This Treaty – the result of more than 75 years of work – sends a clear signal that nuclear weapons are unacceptable from a moral, humanitarian, and now a legal point of view,” President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer said in a joint statement by ICRC and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).“The Treaty presents each of us with a really simple question: Do we want nuclear weapons to be banned or not?” Francesco Rocca, President of IFRC said.  “The entry into force of the Nuclear Ban Treaty is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts,” Rocca said.Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Enters into Force51 states have endorsed the instrument, but not world’s major nuclear powersThe ICRC and IFRC urged world leaders, including those of nuclear powers, to join the path “toward a world free of nuclear weapons, in line with long-standing international obligations, notably those under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”The world’s major nuclear-armed states, including the United States and Russia have not endorsed TPNW.

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Cesar Chavez’s Son Happy Dad’s Bust is in Biden Oval Office

Paul Chavez had no idea where a sculpture of his father, Latino American civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez, would end up in the White House.He agreed just this week to lend the bronze bust to President Joe Biden and hustled to get it wrapped up and shipped across the country from California. It was an utter surprise Wednesday when he saw Biden at his desk in the Oval Office, with the bust of the late Cesar Chavez right behind the president.“We’re still smiling cheek to cheek,” Paul Chavez said in an interview Thursday.Biden pressed themes of unity and inclusivity and advocacy for racial justice during the campaign, and Chavez said Biden appeared to be trying to convey that through a series of quick decorative changes he’s made to the world’s most powerful office.Chavez said the prominent placement of his father’s likeness in the White House sends the message that it’s a “new day” following the tenure of Donald Trump and the anti-immigrant policies that he and his advisers pushed. Chavez, who is president and chairman of the board of directors of the foundation named for his father, predicted that “the contributions of working people, of immigrants, of Latinos … will be taken into account” in the new administration.Whenever Biden is seen at his desk, Chavez, a farm worker advocate, will be there, too.Clinton-era rug, drapesBiden revealed his Oval Office touch-up Wednesday as he signed a raft of executive orders and other actions in his first hours as the nation’s 46th president.The most visually striking change is Biden’s choice of a deep blue rug, with the presidential seal in the middle, that was last used by President Bill Clinton, to replace a light-colored rug laid down by Trump. Biden is also using Clinton’s deep gold draperies.Busts of civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are also on display, along with a sculpture of President Harry Truman. Biden removed a bust of Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister.On the wall across from Biden’s desk is a portrait collage of predecessors George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and former treasury secretary.No longer on display is a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, a Trump favorite who signed the Indian Removal Act that forced tens of thousands of Native Americans out of their homeland.Red button goneBiden is keeping the Resolute desk, so named because it was built using oak from the British Arctic exploration ship HMS Resolute. But he got rid of the red button that Trump had on the desk and would push to have a butler bring him a Diet Coke, his beverage of choice.All presidents tweak the Oval Office decor at the start of their terms to reflect their personal tastes or to telegraph broader messages to the public.The White House maintains a vast collection of furniture, paintings and other artifacts that they can choose from. Presidents are also allowed to borrow items from the Smithsonian and other museums. The White House curator oversees everything, and the makeover is carried out in the hours after the outgoing president leaves the mansion and before the new president arrives.Biden also replaced a row of military service flags Trump used to decorate the office with a single American flag and a flag with the presidential seal, both positioned behind his desk.He also chose a tufted, dark brown leather chair instead of keeping the reddish-brown desk chair Trump used.

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Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Enters into Force

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement welcomed the entry into force Friday of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the first nuclear disarmament instrument in more than two decades.The treaty, endorsed by 51 states, mandates assistance, such as medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support to all victims under their jurisdiction. It also obliges them to clear areas known to be contaminated by nuclear use or testing.“The survivors of nuclear explosions and nuclear tests offered tragic testimonies and were a moral force behind the treaty,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for Guterres, said in a statement.Nuclear disarmament remains the highest priority of the U.N., the statement said, adding that countries around the world must take urgent action for the elimination of such weapons and prevent the human and environmental catastrophes the use of them would cause.The secretary-general is calling on all states “to work together to realize this ambition to advance common security and collective safety,” the statement said.“Today is a victory for humanity. This treaty – the result of more than 75 years of work – sends a clear signal that nuclear weapons are unacceptable from a moral, humanitarian, and now a legal point of view,” President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer said in a joint statement by ICRC and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).“The treaty presents each of us with a really simple question: Do we want nuclear weapons to be banned or not?” Francesco Rocca, president of IFRC, said. “The entry into force of the Nuclear Ban Treaty is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts.”The ICRC and IFRC urged world leaders, including those of nuclear powers, to join the path “toward a world free of nuclear weapons, in line with long-standing international obligations, notably those under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”The world’s major nuclear-armed states, including the United States and Russia, have not endorsed TPNW.

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Google Seals Content Payment Deal with French News Publishers

Google and a French publishers lobby said Thursday that they had agreed to a copyright framework for the U.S. tech giant to pay news publishers for content online, a first for Europe.The move paves the way for individual licensing agreements for French publications, some of which have seen revenues drop with the rise of the internet and declines in print circulation.The deal, which Google describes as a sustainable way to pay publishers, is likely to be closely watched by other platforms such as Facebook, a lawyer involved in the talks said.Facebook was not immediately reachable for comment.Alphabet-owned Google and the Alliance de la Presse D’information Générale (APIG) said in a statement that the framework included criteria such as the daily volume of publications, monthly internet traffic and “contribution to political and general information.”Google has so far only signed licensing agreements with a few publications in France, including national daily newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro. These take into account the framework agreed with APIG, a Google spokesman said.Google News ShowcaseGoogle’s vehicle for paying news publishers, called Google News Showcase, is so far only available in Brazil and Germany.On Thursday, Reuters confirmed it had signed a deal with Google to be the first global news provider to Google News Showcase. Reuters is owned by news and information provider Thomson Reuters Corp.”Reuters is committed to developing new ways of providing access to trusted, high-quality and reliable global news coverage at a time when it’s never been more important,” Eric Danetz, Reuters global head of revenue, said in a statement.Google and APIG did not say how much money would be distributed to APIG’s members, who include most French national and local publishers. Details on how the remuneration would be calculated were not disclosed.The deal follows months of bargaining among Google, French publishers and news agencies over how to apply revamped EU copyright rules, which allow publishers to demand a fee from online platforms showing extracts of their news.Google, the world’s biggest search engine, initially fought against the idea of paying publishers for content, saying their websites benefited from the greater traffic it brought. 

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North Korean Defectors Call on Biden to Focus on Human Rights

As President Joe Biden was sworn into office Wednesday, North Korean defectors living throughout the United States expressed hope that his administration would place North Koreans’ human rights above Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and deal forcefully with leader Kim Jong Un.Jake Kim, North Korean defector. (Screenshot)“If [the Biden administration] focuses more attention on North Korean human rights, it can lead to a result that grants legitimacy to the people, the residents of North Korea,” said Jake Kim, a 38-year-old North Korean defector who arrived in the U.S. in 2015 and is studying political science at Utah Valley University, a public institution in the city of Orem.“But when you ignore human rights and focus on nuclear weapons and Kim Jong Un, it can end up legitimizing Kim Jong Un’s regime,” he told VOA Korean Service.Kim added, “I think the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be resolved when human rights issue is resolved first.”Former President Donald Trump initially focused attention on North Korea’s human rights record by inviting defector and human rights activist Ji Seong-ho to his first State of the Union in 2018. Trump highlighted Ji’s flight on crutches from North Korea.Now a member of South Korean National Assembly, Ji is a double amputee.North Korean Defector: Trump Sent Warning to Kim in State of Union Address

        A North Korean double amputee who fled North Korea on crutches says President Donald Trump sent a warning when he spoke of human rights violations in North Korea. During Tuesday night's State of the Union address, Trump said, "No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea. ... 

But as Trump forged a close relationship with North Korea’s leader through two U.S.-North Korean summits, a Justin Seo, a Virginia resident who came to the U.S. in 2009 from North Korea. (Screenshot)Referring to Trump’s conciliatory tones toward Kim, Justin Seo, a 32-year-old Virginia resident who came to the U.S. in 2009, said, “What I was disappointed with President Trump, to be honest, is that he called Kim Jong Un ‘great.’”Seo continued, “I would like [Biden] to deal more forcefully [with the regime].”Charles Kim, 53, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, wants to see continued U.S. pressure on Pyongyang.“I would like the Biden administration to seek measures to pressure North Korea so that sanctions on North Korea can become more effective,” said Kim, who fled North Korea in 2005 and arrived in the U.S. in 2008. In July, more than 40 countries accused North Korea of Grace Jo escaped North Korea in October 2006 and entered the US two years later in March 2008.Describing herself as “a survivor who experienced true North Korea,” Grace Jo, a 29-year-old student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, spoke on behalf of North Korean defectors seeking freedom in the U.S.“I would be very thankful if the new administration listens to the voice of those people and help giving them freedom so there can be more free college students like myself,” said Jo, who escaped North Korea in October 2006 and entered the U.S. two years later in March 2008.Christy Lee contributed to this report, originated by VOA Korean. 

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New Acting USAGM Chief Begins Undoing Predecessor’s Policies

Moving swiftly on her first day as acting CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, journalist Kelu Chao oversaw the removal of the top executive at the Voice of America, reversing a widely criticized appointment by her Trump-appointed predecessor, Michael Pack.Robert Reilly, whom Pack appointed as director of Voice of America in December, was removed along with his deputy, Elizabeth Robbins. Yolanda Lopez, former VOA news director whom Reilly reassigned last week, was named acting director of VOA.With his departure, Reilly made history as the first VOA director to have stood down twice, serving little more than a year during two appointments that were 20 years apart.USAGM emailed staff about the changes Thursday, also confirming that President Joe Biden had selected Chao, a highly regarded veteran of VOA, as acting CEO of USAGM, the parent organization. Pack resigned Wednesday after the new Democratic administration informed him that he would be removed. Brian Conniff, former president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, was named Chao’s deputy.The announcement added that Jeffrey Shapiro had resigned as director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.Chao, a veteran broadcast journalist who has worked for more than 40 years at Voice of America and the agency, is the first woman to hold the top position at USAGM.In her acting role, Chao will oversee USAGM’s networks and grantees that include VOA, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the internet freedom nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund. The announcement said Biden was expected to nominate a permanent CEO soon.Reilly’s appointment raised criticism and concern among lawmakers.At least 48 current and former journalists had called for Reilly and Robbins to resign last week, charging that they had violated the network’s journalism code by giving a senior government official “a free platform to speak live on our channels.” They also cited the abrupt reassignment of White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara.Widakuswara was moved to the Indonesian Service, where she started her career at VOA, after attempting to question then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over current news events after a speech delivered in the VOA auditorium.She also confronted Reilly about why he had not used a question-and-answer period afterward to pose questions submitted by newsroom journalists on controversial matters.Footage of her exchange with Reilly shows the director telling Widakuswara she was “not authorized” to ask questions and chastising her for not knowing how to behave. She had followed Pompeo out of the VOA building, calling out questions.Lawmakers and former USAGM officials said last month that Reilly’s public comments and his published books expressing controversial views about homosexuals and Muslims risked causing irreparable harm to the network’s credibility and reputation. When he arrived as VOA director in December, Reilly told staff his previous writings were “irrelevant” to his official duties.Eliot Engel, then the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disagreed and described Reilly’s appointment as a “disgrace and an embarrassment.”“VOA journalists shouldn’t have to endure the reputational harm of having to work for someone with views so backward and out of step with American values,” Engel, a Democrat from New York, said in a December statement.USAGM provided no explanation for Reilly’s firing.’It must be transparent’Pack’s tenure as the first chief executive of USAGM was tumultuous and led to several whistleblower complaints, an order from the Office of Special Counsel to investigate allegations of mismanagement and separate court orders barring him and his aides from interfering in VOA editorial decisions or installing appointees at the Open Technology Fund, respectively.The former CEO said in interviews he was trying to resolve long-standing security lapses and issues of bias.David Seide, senior counsel of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, which represents more than 20 whistleblowers at VOA, welcomed the change in leadership.He said the agency should move to reinstate Widakuswara and any other individual found to have been improperly suspended or removed and investigate allegations of mismanagement.”There must be an accounting for what has happened over the past six months. It must be transparent. New leadership’s support will be critical. I am confident they will provide it,” Seide said.During Pack’s tenure last year, lawmakers weakened the CEO position by introducing more checks and balances into the National Defense Authorization Act.The changes will prevent the CEO or federal employees from serving on any grantee board. They will also give the board power to advise the agency head to ensure the integrity and independence of the networks is respected and to approve appointments or dismissals of network heads.The boards will also need to be bipartisan, and the members must have a relevant background in journalism, technology, broadcasting or diplomacy.The changes could affect a new conservative board appointed by Pack before his departure this week. On January 19, he announced new conservative members for the network boards that he had earlier dissolved, including Roger Simon, a contributor to The Epoch Times who falsely described January’s deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as a “false flag” operation, and Christian Whiton, who has defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea.