Have Syrian rebels used chemical weapons?

A senior United Nations investigator says there’s evidence that Syrian rebel fighters may have used the deadly nerve agent sarin in combat.

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The statement by Carla Del Ponte is in stark contradiction to long-standing accusations of chemical weapons use in Syria, which have predominantly been against government forces.

 

A powerful gas that, when inhaled, kills by crippling the nervous system, sarin is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned under international law.

 

Nikki Canning reports.

 

The United States, like Britain and Israel, claims evidence exists that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.

 

President Barack Obama cautions the information is based on preliminary intelligence assessments in which there is varying degrees of confidence, and raises certain questions.

 

Mr Obama, whose administration openly backs the rebels and is pushing for political change in Syria, says government forces are likely to be behind any such attacks — a claim the Syrian government rejects.

 

Seemingly reluctant to send troops into Syria, Mr Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a so-called red line, and could give cause for a possible foreign intervention.

 

“It’s obviously horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed. To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law, and that is going to be a game-changer.”

 

But the US President remains silent on where his country would stand if Syrian rebels are found to have used chemical weapons.

 

Carla Del Ponte is a former Chief Prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals.

 

Now a member of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Ms Del Ponte says the Commission’s investigation has produced what she calls strong, concrete suspicions — yet no incontrovertible proof — that opposition forces have used the deadly sarin gas.

 

This, Ms Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss television, is based on testimonies from casualties, and medical staff treating them, in neighbouring countries.

 

She said the evidence gathered links the use of sarin gas to rebel fighters, and not Syrian government forces.

 

“We have no indication at all that the government, the authority of the Syrian Government, have used chemical weapons. I was a little bit stupified that the first, the first indication we got, they were about the use of nerve gas by the opponents.”

 

Responding to Ms Del Ponte’s comments, the UN Commission quickly issued a statement saying it’s yet to reach any conclusive findings on chemical weapons use in Syria.

 

Syria’s main opposition group, for its part, rejects the allegations — directing blame towards the Syrian government.

 

Molham al-Droubi, of the Syrian National Council, says claims the rebels fighting to depose President Bashar al Assad have used chemical weapons are unfounded.

 

“There is no objective evidence of what they said. In order to have objective evidence we need to decide on the place, on the time, and we should have witnesses who are unbiased witnesses.”

The US, which is considering arming Syria’s rebels, is questioning Ms Del Ponte’s statements saying it is highly sceptical about the rebels’ use of chemical weapons.

 

It too maintains that any use of sarin gas is likely to have originated with the Syrian government.

 

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell says the US believes Syria’s Army possesses the capacity to deploy chemical weapons.

 

“The concern is that the regime has huge stockpiles of these weapons and has shown an increasing willingness to use escalated violence against their people.”

 

A separate UN investigation into allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, instigated by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, is stalling.

 

Investigators are yet to enter the country, reportedly due to disagreements with the government over the limitations of the investigation.

 

Syria initially called for the inquiry after claims of chemical weapons attacks near Aleppo earlier this year.

 

It’s one of three locations where chemical weapons are alleged to have been deployed during the conflict.

 

Speaking to the BBC, Syria’s former ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Kabelan, said the UN should conduct an independent and unbiased investigation in Syria.

 

But he’s warned the Syrian government is wary of a US-led invasion, such as in Iraq, which was based on false evidence about weapons of mass destruction presented to the UN.

 

“Syrians have a very vivid memory of what has happened in Iraq and how the whole country was invaded, destroyed undermined, and for a few years later for Colin Powell (Secretary of State under the George W Bush administration) to come up with this testimony that what they suspected weapons trucks carrying weapons of mass destruction turned out to be milk powder or something like that.”

 

The Syrian conflict is now in its third year, having claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, and forced over one million people to flee.

 

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Ashes victory is my proudest moment, says Cook

England, chasing 227 to win a home Ashes series 4-0 for the first time, were 21 runs short of their target when bad light forced the players off four overs early and the match ended in a draw.

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“It would have been nice to finish with a win but the rules and regulations are there for a reason,” Cook said at the presentation ceremony after lifting the famous urn while red and white fireworks erupted around the ground to celebrate England’s third Ashes win in a row.

“The umpires have strict guidelines and, if it was day three, we would have gone off. This morning our job was to try and make it as difficult as possible to stop Australia from pushing on for a win and to make our chances of victory easier.

“The crowds have been fantastic for all five tests and I’m privileged to captain this group of guys. Winning this series is the proudest moment of my life.”

Australia captain Michael Clarke declared his side’s second innings on 111 for six, setting England a challenging target in the hope of forcing a consolation victory for his team.

“We’re here to try and win, credit to England they played well today,” Clarke said. “It was worth a crack.

“We did our best to set up the game and hopefully we have given the fans something to enjoy. We got outplayed throughout the series and again we couldn’t get over the line today.

“England deserve a lot of credit for the way they played. The result says they won 3-0 and it doesn’t matter what I think. The last three tests, we have played a terrific brand of cricket.

“The whole squad has worked their backside off but we have to give credit to England and Alastair Cook.”

THREE CENTURIES

England batsman Ian Bell was named his team’s player of the series after scoring 562 runs, including three centuries, at an average of 62.44.

“On a personal note it’s nice to contribute,” Bell said. Going into the series I was low on scores – I kept getting caught in the covers – but to get hundreds helped the team win some test matches. As the series went on, I got better and better.”

Bell made his Ashes debut in 2005 as a junior member of Michael Vaughan’s England team who won back the urn.

“I don’t think I was very good back in 2005 but I learnt some big lessons in that series,” Bell added.

“I am a more senior player now and I am contributing more. It’s been a tough battle and we’re all looking forward to a break from test cricket for a while.”

Fast bowler Ryan Harris was Australia’s player of the series after taking 24 wickets despite missing the first test at Trent Bridge.

“I probably wasn’t ready for the first test, but the guys who did play did well but I got the opportunity and took it and enjoyed it,” Harris said.

“I came here wanting to play five tests but I said I wanted to be on the plane and not go early. Putting games together and getting overs in gives me confidence.

The next Ashes series starts on November 21 in Brisbane.

“I will go home, get the hamstring twinge sorted out and be ready when England come to Australia,” Harris said.

“It has been good fun but it has been challenging and there have been some good battles.”

(Editing by John Mehaffey)

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Clive Palmer accused of conflict of interest

The new Palmer United Party is facing scrutiny over campaign leaflets which feature an ad for the multimillion-dollar business venture of its leader, Clive Palmer.

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In an election campaign DVD being mailed to Australian voters, billionaire-turned-politician Clive Palmer appears on the cover with two thumbs up.

The DVD handout is the latest campaign leaflet for Mr Palmer’s United Party.

But next to its How To Vote instructions and the party’s slogan “We’re Fair Dinkum” is an ad for something else.

Promoted as “a bonus feature” on the DVD is a video promoting Mr Palmer’s multimillion dollar private project to rebuild the Titanic Two cruise ship.

Questioned by SBS during a Fairfax web forum, Mr Palmer admitted the video has no relation to the party’s policies.

“It doesn’t fit into our policy platform but the party had to do a deal with Titanic Two to get the funds to be able to get their idea out to Australia. It’s a freebie, it’s a free, it’s a free amount on Titanic Two because there’s so much interest in it. It was a good opportunity to let the Australian people see what the project was about.”

Clive Palmer announced plans to recreate the Titanic Two cruise ship earlier this year.

It’s to be built by his shipping company, Blue Star Line, and is expected to cost the company well over $200-million.

According to a spokesperson for the Palmer United Party, the party’s campaign ads that feature the ship were personally approved by Mr Palmer.

Mr Palmer’s mining company, Queensland Nickel, also printed and packaged the flyers in China, where the Titanic Two is currently being built.

Mr Palmer says he included an ad for the project in his campaign material simply as a response to public interest in the venture.

“After we announced it in New York of course it was number one in the world on Twitter, it was number two on Twitter in the United States for two weeks, only beaten by the Oscars. And certainly it beat all the Oscar-winners. And we had something like $500-million worth of media around the world and we’ve got over 50,000 people who’ve been on our website wanting to come on the ship. So I get probably 2,000 communications a week on Titanic Two from all over the globe.”

More than six million flyers featuring the Titanic II ad are currently being distributed to households around Australia, with voters in the Queensland town of Lilley among the first to receive the DVD.

Some Australian legal experts and Twitter users have slammed the ads as a conflict of interest.

Joo-Cheong Tham is an Associate Professor at Melbourne University Law School and an expert in political advertising.

He says the ads raise serious alarm bells around political ethics.

“Including an ad like this, which is clearly about the commercial interests of Mr Palmer, into material where he is running for public office or the party is running for public office, I think at the very least raises a perception that there is a failure to fully understand the conflict of interest that can arise between his private interest and his public duty.”

Professor Tham says rules on political advertising material are few and far between. But the expectations on a candidate in standing for office are clear.

“When candidates run for public office they’re basically running on the basis that they will act in the public interest. And if they’re running on the basis that they will act in the public interest and they hold office in the public interest, I think what follows from that is that they should very diligently and assiduously separate out their private interests from the public interests.”

The task of monitoring polical ads falls to the Australian Electoral Commission.

But according to its Chief Legal Officer, Paul Pirani, there are currently no rules that prohibit a candidate from distributing personal advertising as part of their election campaign material.

“The purpose of the electoral act and the provisions that are in the electoral act are primarily aimed at making sure that people are able to identify the source of the electoral advertising: so that you can identify where it’s come from, so that if a person feels that they’ve been defamed that theyr’e able to take legal actiona against the publisher and the person that authorised the electoral advertising.”

Mr Pirani says it’s just too difficult for the AEC to assess each and every ad put out by parties during an election.

Instead it’s up to consumer bodies and voters to assess and scutinise.

“The personal advertising in the Palmer leaflet in relation to his business venture would arguably would be subject to either the fair trading laws in Queensland or, if it was done by a corporate entity, by the Competition and Consumer Commission. So there are safeguards and regulations already in place that deal with the private commercial activities. And the traditional court view has always been that it’s up to electors to make the decision as to whether it’s true or not and they do that by how they mark their ballot paper.”

In the meantime, despite authorising the Titanic II video, Clive Palmer insists he isn’t running for office as a businessman.

Instead, he says, he’s simply running as an Australian citizen: a citizen with a firm belief in the freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech is the most important thing in our democracy because it enables people to know what we stand for to make proper judgements. We’ve got politicians that don’t believe in presenting exactly who they are to the people, you know they all sort of hide in little corridors and have focus groups and have notes and decide what they’re gonna say and you wonder what they’re really thinking. At least with someone like me you know exactly what I’m thinking.”

 

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Finally, they do

Richard Dorr and John Mace fell in love in the 1950s but it took until last weekend for New York state law to allow them to marry.

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Late on Friday night, as the public gallery chanted “USA! USA!”, New York’s same-sex marriage bill passed – just – by a 33-29 margin.

Four Republican senators joined all but one Democrat in backing the new law in a wily piece of politicking by new governor Andrew Cuomo, who made the legislation a priority of the first session of his first term.

One Republican who crossed the floor, Mark Grisanti, said he opposed gay marriage for religious reasons but could not deny equal rights to gay couples: “I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage. Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife, who I love, or to have the 1,300-plus [State] rights that I share with her?”

Another, Roy McDonald from upstate New York, was more direct.

“You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing,” McDonald said.

“You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it; I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

New York City is already planning a marketing rollout to attract gay couples to the city to get married, a move Mayor Michael Bloomberg claims will boost the local economy.

Of course, not everyone is happy.

The Catholic Church said it was “deeply disappointed” while the lone Democrat to vote against the bill, Senator Ruben Diaz, said, “I will, never, ever, accept gay marriage.”

Many critics pointed to the bible and claimed marriage was the exclusive domain of a man and a woman. The same men and women who often lie, cheat, have children outside their marriage, and get divorced and remarry countless times.

But Richard Dorr, 84, and John Mace, 91, won’t care about the critics. After all, for most of their lives they have been told their love is wrong. All 61 years of it.

“It was just that we had to be together,” said Dorr.

And amen to that.

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Mass protest in Paris against gay marriage law

Tens-of-thousands of people have marched in Paris against a new French law allowing same-sex marriage.

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The law was introduced in mid-May after months of heated debate.

 

The issue has sparked some of the largest protests France has seen in decades.

 

Biwa Kwan reports.

 

French police estimate that up to 150,000 people joined four demonstrations in Paris that converged on the city centre.

 

Organisers put the figure close to one-million.

 

The rallies were largely peaceful, but police say towards the end of the rally up to 500 protesters began attacking them by throwing metal barriers, smoke flares and beer bottles.

 

The police responded by firing tear gas and made dozens of arrests.

 

The French government says any disturbances at gay weddings set to take place in the days ahead will be unacceptable.

 

But opponents of the law say even though the bill has been signed into law they will continue to fight against it.

 

“(French then English) What seems the most natural to me is that a child should have a father and a mother…For me, it’s important to not give up and to show that it’s families and the rights of the children that are important there shouldn’t be any more than this law.”

 

France’s Opposition Leader Jean-François Copé was at the protest rally.

 

He says the protesters hope to stop or slow down further laws, for example to give gay couples access to assisted reproductive technology.

 

“(French then English) This is not about revoking the law. This is about rewriting it because there are some topics we would like to discuss again. Such as the question of assisted reproductive technology and surrogacy for example.”

 

Other protesters at the rally were critical of French President Francois Hollande’s decision to prioritise gay marriage during his first year in office, saying there were more pressing issues.

 

“(French then English)I think this law against families is a big diversion. The government should be preoccupied with other things. We have a big problem with crime. Paris has become a den of thieves. Our country keeps getting worse. And we’re worried about the future of our children.”

 

A total of 14 nations have now fully legalised same-sex marriage.

 

Some nations perform civil unions and others have not legalised it but recognise marriages from other countries.

 

Australia has neither legalised same-sex marriage nor recognised any same-sex marriages performed overseas.

 

A vote on the issue in federal parliament late last year was defeated, but advocates hope a new vote brought by the Greens next month will pass when it comes before the House of Representatives.

 

In recent weeks, a number of federal politicians have said they have changed their minds and now support the proposal.

 

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