With the end game in sight to what could be the world's most ambitious trade deal, critics fear a controversial mechanism to protect investors will strengthen the hand of big business while eroding national sovereignty. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- a wide-ranging accord that would encompass 40 percent of the world's trade -- could be sealed in Hawaii this week after more than five years of talks. The United States, the chief architect of the ambitious pact which takes in 11 other Pacific Rim countries, says it would loosen trade restrictions, drive jobs growth and encourage investment by strengthening legal protection for companies. But critics say it favours multinational corporations over state interests and individual consumers, pointing in particular to a proposed investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism that would allow foreign companies to sue governments, likely through international tribunals. They warn ISDS cases might expose states to potentially huge liability claims -- a bigger risk for developing countries that do not have deep pockets -- and may also threaten their ability to introduce health and environmental laws. That is a particular issue because there are several developing countries among the prospective members, which are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam. "There are risks for all governments involved in the TPP in relation to the investor-state dispute settlement," Matthew Rimmer, an intellectual property expert at the Queensland University of Technology, told AFP. "Under the regime, investors -- particularly multinational companies -- can bring actions against governments, but governments cannot bring actions against corporations. "So it's a very one-sided regime and it can provide special rights to foreign investors that are not present for domestic investors." - Cases on the rise - The issue has become a particularly hot topic in Australia, which was sued by tobacco giant Philip Morris after it became the first country to introduce plain packaging laws for cigarettes in 2012. Canberra refused to reveal its legal bill for defending the claim from Philip Morris, which argued the legislation breached a bilateral investment treaty. The case, and broader concerns about ISDS processes, saw Australia's top judge Chief Justice Robert French warn last year that claims tribunals could undermine domestic legal jurisdictions. Philip Morris' suing of Uruguay after the country ordered that the health warnings be larger on cigarette packets helped prompt billionaires Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg to launch a fund to support developing states in their legal battles with tobacco giants. On a global scale, the number of cases brought by companies against governments has been on the rise in recent years, according to figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Out of 608 known cases brought between 1987 and 2014, more than a quarter of them were over the past three years, UNCTAD said, adding that confidentiality agreements meant there were likely more. Of particular concern to ISDS opponents, less developed economies have faced a larger proportion of such suits, although the relative share of cases against developed countries is on the rise. Meanwhile, most litigation was started by investors from developed countries -- particularly from the US, Canada and several European Union nations -- accounting for more than 80 percent of all claims. - 'Blunt instrument' - Tim Harcourt, former chief economist at Australia's trade promotion body Austrade, said the ISDS was a "blunt instrument" to protect companies' interests. "Giving international companies the right to sue countries left, right and centre is probably not the way to build those (free trade) institutions," he told AFP. "The way to protect investors is by building local institutions so they're transparent, and ultimately countries that don't have transparent institutions like Venezuela, people won't invest there." Concerns have also been raised in the United States, including by influential Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. "ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge US laws -- and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers -- without ever stepping foot in a US court," she said. But Alan Oxley, the first Australian to chair the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Trade Organization's predecessor, said fears that the ISDS favours international business over governments were overblown. He said an international arbitration tribunal would be an effective way to settle claims as it gave foreign investors an automatic right to appeal without government approval. Australia's foreign affairs department has released a "myth versus realities" TPP document that stresses an ISDS tribunal "could not overturn domestic court decisions nor force Australia to change its laws". "If you talk to anybody in business, they'll say that's a good idea, whereas the opposition is coming from quite a small fringe group," Oxley, who heads up the Australian APEC Study Centre at RMIT University, told AFP.
- Associated Press
Bahrain’s crown prince spoke with the Israeli prime minister on Thursday about the return to nuclear talks with Iran, Bahrain’s state-run news agency reported, as the U.S. administration tries to revive the tattered 2015 nuclear accord. Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, also the country’s prime minister, stressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the importance of the participation of regional countries in any negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file” to support “security and stability in the region,” according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
- Business Insider
An ex-girlfriend tipped off the FBI about an alleged US Capitol rioter after he called her a 'moron'
Richard Michetti was arraigned Tuesday in Philadelphia over his alleged participation in the January 6 insurrection.
The first big real-world study of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be independently reviewed shows the shot is highly effective at preventing COVID-19, in a potentially landmark moment for countries desperate to end lockdowns and reopen economies. Up until now, most data on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines has come under controlled conditions in clinical trials, leaving an element of uncertainty over how results would translate into the real world with its unpredictable variables. The research in Israel - two months into one of the world's fastest rollouts, providing a rich source of data - showed two doses of the Pfizer shot cut symptomatic COVID-19 cases by 94% across all age groups, and severe illnesses by nearly as much.
- WCVB - Boston
There is promising new data today on Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine. If approved, it would add a third option to the vaccine rollout in the United States.
- The Telegraph
The Northern Ireland Protocol must be abolished rather than tweaked, the European Research Group will urge the Government on Thursday. The hardline Tory Brexiteers will publish a report, seen by The Telegraph, urging Boris Johnson to overhaul the problematic protocol rather than work with the EU to amend it. It comes amid a growing outcry over bureaucracy and checks, required under the protocol, hampering the inward flow of some goods to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The protocol was established to smooth trade friction arising from Northern Ireland remaining inside the UK internal market while continuing to apply some EU rules. The Brexiteer MPs propose replacing it with a “mutual enforcement” arrangement, via which both the UK and EU would agree voluntarily to enforce each other’s rules. This would see the UK apply EU customs regulations in Northern Ireland, undertaking checks “at source” in warehouses and factories instead of checks taking place at a border. The ERG’s 38-page report comes after Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic, the EU Commission vice-president, on Wednesday night issued a joint statement declaring both the UK and EU’s “full commitment” to “the proper implementation of the protocol”. The pair’s statement acknowledged that “joint action” was needed to make it work, but their declaration of support for it disappointed Tory Eurosceptics and Unionists. A UK Government source was also downbeat on the prospect of a breakthrough over the issues surrounding the protocol, conceding “there was no real progress” made in the meeting between Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic. The source added that there “seems to be a lack of understanding on the EU side” of the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland and how the protocol is impacting people’s everyday lives there. It appeared Mr Sefcovic has “not been given any political room for manoeuvre” by hardliners in the Commission and member states, the source added, saying the bloc appeared to have forgotten its aborted move to trigger Article 16 of the protocol last month. The ERG, which boasts more than 50 MP supporters, called in senior Brexiteer lawyers Martin Howe QC, Barnabas Reynolds and James Webber to help draft its report. Their publication, entitled “Re-uniting the Kingdom: How and why to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol”, argues the mechanism has “had a profound and negative effect” on the UK’s internal market, as well as the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. It sees the ERG formally join the growing chorus of opposition to the protocol, which has been led by the Democratic Unionist Party and other Unionists who insist it is unworkable. This week DUP leader Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, and senior party DUP MPs announced they were backing legal action against it. She has said a “long-term solution rather than sticking plasters” is needed, adding: “Whether it is the flow of parcels, supermarket goods, chilled meats or medicines, from GB to NI, the United Kingdom single market has been ruptured.” Mark Francois, chairman of the ERG, told The Telegraph: “As this report makes crystal clear, from the viewpoint of the ERG, the NI protocol has to go. We’ve recommended an alternative called mutual enforcement which gives both sides what they need without infringing the sovereignty of either party.” He added: “We very much hope that just as the EU swore blind they would never abandon the backstop and then did so, they may yet abandon their adherence to the protocol as well.” Eurosceptic Tories were buoyed last week by Downing Street’s promotion of Lord Frost to the Cabinet to lead on the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU, believing he will take a tougher approach to Brussels than Mr Gove, who holds the brief until the end of this month.
- The Independent
Biden news - live: Trump Jr deposed over inaugural funds as White House defends migrant camp after AOC attack
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Thai authorities are preparing a plan to ease restrictions for travellers vaccinated against the coronavirus, senior officials said on Wednesday, as the country looks to revive a tourism industry battered by travel curbs. Measures for vaccinated visitors would be introduced step-by-step and could include shortening the mandatory quarantine for all arrivals from two weeks to three days for those vaccinated, or waiving it entirely, Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor (TAT) Yuthasak Supasorn said. The tourism ministry has also requested 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine for tourism workers in Chon Buri, Krabi, Phang Nga, Chiang Mai and Phuket.
- Miami Herald
During the past 26 years, only two top executives have taken over South Florida teams and orchestrated a significant and immediate transformation, and both are Hall of Famers: the Dolphins’ Bill Parcells (Miami ascended from 1-15 to 11-5 in his first season as football operations czar) and Heat president Pat Riley, who also coached the team, immediately elevating Miami from 32-50 to 42-40 and the first of six consecutive playoff appearances.
U.S. senators on Wednesday were eyeing potentially significant cuts to President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill as they awaited a ruling on whether the measure can include raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Senate parliamentarian was expected to decide soon whether Senator Bernie Sanders' proposed minimum wage increase is allowable under a rule allowing a simple majority of the 100-member Senate to approve the sweeping relief measure, instead of the chamber's typical 60-vote majority. The Senate is likely to follow up in early March.
Kaley Cuoco thought she was meeting with her 'Big Bang Theory' costars to discuss a 13th season - instead she found out the show was ending
The actress said she was "in a state of shock" when Jim Parsons said he wanted to leave the series, which ended the popular CBS sitcom.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Wednesday that the head of the European Union's delegation in Caracas had 72 hours to leave the country and declared her persona non grata after the bloc imposed new sanctions on Venezuelan officials this week. In announcing the action against Portuguese national Isabel Brilhante, Arreaza described the sanctions against 19 Venezuelan officials as "truly unacceptable." The sanctions were a response to legislative elections won by President Nicolas Maduro's allies that Venezuela's opposition and many Western democracies deemed fraudulent.
Marvel Studios president hints 'we probably could' see characters like Jessica Jones again 'someday' in the MCU
"I'm not exactly sure...but perhaps someday," Kevin Feige said of the possibility that Netflix or ABC characters would enter the MCU.
- Business Insider
A preliminary study from Israel suggests people vaccinated against COVID-19 have lower viral loads, which are linked to less spread of the virus.
- Associated Press
Rival neighbors Pakistan and India have pledged to stop firing weapons across the border in disputed Kashmir, promising to adhere to a 2003 accord that has been largely ignored, officials from both sides said on Thursday. Both sides often exchange fire in Kashmir and civilians are caught in the crossfire whenever such violence erupts.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher are one of Hollywood's most private couples. Here's a timeline of their 20-year relationship.
Fisher has said being with Cohen is like "winning the lottery" ... even if she has to deal with his many shenanigans.
- The Telegraph
The Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is to be offered to key civil servants in Germany in a bid by Angela Merkel’s government to win public support for the jab, it has emerged. While the AstraZeneca jab has been a vital component in the UK’s successful vaccination roll-out, health authorities in Germany have been struggling to get people to take it amid public perceptions it is less effective than its rivals and causes more severe side effects. In stark contrast to the EU's accusations last month that AstraZeneca failed to deliver promised vaccines, Germany is struggling to use its stocks of the jab, and has administered only 211,000 of the 1.4m doses AstraZeneca has delivered so far. In a bid to counter this the health ministry is planning to use the AstraZeneca jab exclusively when the vaccination roll-out extends to key workers at government departments next month, according to details leaked to Spiegel magazine. “If our own people don't get the AstraZeneca jab it's even harder for us to convince the general public,” the magazine quoted an unnamed official as saying. German health authorities report many people refuse the vaccine when they learn they have been assigned the AstraZeneca jab, or simply fail to turn up to their appointments.
- Business Insider
"I don't believe [Trump] should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country," Cheney said.
- Associated Press
When “WandaVision” wraps its initial run next month on the Disney+ streaming service, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda will make her next appearance in the big-screen “Doctor Strange” sequel. It’s storytelling that determines how and when characters from the Marvel Comics universe hopscotch between TV and movies, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige said Wednesday. “All of the crossover between series, between films, will always vary based on the story,” Feige said.
- Raleigh News and Observer
The Tigers will be back on the practice field on Wednesday. Here’s what we’re watching for this spring.
- Business Insider
Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine performs just as well in the real world as it did in trials, a landmark Israeli study of more than 1 million people suggests. It was 94% effective.
Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine was 94% effective against symptomatic coronavirus, a week after the second dose. This compared to 95% in clinical trials.