A message from the WDC President: While COVID-19 separates us physically, it unites the globe in terms of common experience

WDC.- I write to you from the comfort of my home in Antwerp, which would seem an unremarkable fact were it not the last place I would ordinarily expect myself to be in the middle of a workday during the final week of March. Uncharacteristically, for quite a number of days we have been fortunate to enjoy a beautiful blue sky outside. The bright light streaming in is most welcome during these trying times.

Most of you who are reading this are also at home and are most likely doing so with a similar sense of suspended disbelief. In an astonishingly short space of time, life as we knew it has been turned upside down.

Every evening at 8:00 PM sharp most of us living on our street, like many others in Belgium, thank all the health workers for their amazing commitment and sacrifices. Neighbors applaud, meet, talk and sometimes sing together. I had the immense joy of having them wishing me a happy birthday from their windows and balconies. It was unique and so very a special experience.

These are very strange but also anxious times, for we feel that the most basic foundations of our existence are being eroded. Naturally, our first concern is for our own health and that of our families, but also of friends, fellow workers, colleagues and members of our larger community. I have done my best to maintain close contact with all of them, even those living on all other continents, sharing ideas and stories.

We fear also for our financial stability, which has been shaken by the sudden and almost absolute economic shutdown. And the general sense of trepidation is exacerbated by the fact that we are all treading in uncharted territory, where even the experts admit that their understanding of what is likely to happen is tentative at best.

But there are elements from which we can take comfort. Even though we are physically cut off from each other, we remain connected, as no other society has ever managed to be in the history of humankind. Zoom, Skype, Whatsapp and a host of other applications are enabling us to communicate in real time, keep up to date with one another, and also to collaborate in finding solutions to what will be a formidable environment when we get to the other side.

For when this crisis is behind us – and that day is drawing closer – many of the challenges that brought us together in the first place will still be there, but they may be amplified and changed by the pervasive and universal effects of the pandemic.

As we remain confined to our homes, we should be more acutely aware of the value of time. Indeed, the situation in which we have found ourselves has provided plenty of that commodity to contemplate, to share and to learn. So, there is no reason that we should not think ahead, nor waste this opportunity to enrich our knowledge of the world in which we operate, and to examine what we can do to improve it.

We could begin by understanding more about the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on the diamond and jewelry industry, and certain WDC members are already developing an impressive number of online tools in this regard. I would recommend you taking a look at what has been made available by the Jewelers’ Vigilance Committee (JVC) [https://jvclegal.org/covid19/], Jewelers of America (JA) [https://www.jewelers.org/ja/events-news/press-room/1044-jewelers-of-america-initiates-intensive-webinar-series], and the Diamond Producers’ Association (DPA) [https://diamondproducers.com/trade-access/], I expect that many other resources will become available, and we will be happy to communicate their existence when we become aware of them.

It’s also worth noting that some among us had already developed tools that allow them to continue doing business remotely, and undoubtedly that number will rise as the crisis continues. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of all invention.

The WDC, too, has not shut up shop. Long used to working together from great distances, our officers and committees have kept up the pace of work, well aware that what we do remains critically important, and will possibly even more so in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

In the meantime, we are eager to hear from you, to learn how others are coping, and to develop mechanisms by which we can work together for our industry, and for those who are dependent upon us. We are an organization that was established to deny diamond proceeds to be hijacked to finance conflict, and through global collaboration we have worked diligently to do so for almost 20 years. I know that we have inner resources to do it again, this time as well.

Wishing you strength, endurance and good health.

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Space science from home: resources for children and adults

Armchair astronomy

You could start with ESASky, a discovery portal that provides full access to the entire sky. This open-science application allows computer, tablet and mobile users to visualise cosmic objects near and far across the electromagnetic spectrum – from gamma rays to radio wavelengths – as observed by many space science missions, operated by ESA and other agencies, as well as ground-based telescopes. 

Users may experience ESASky either via the Explorer mode, visualising random objects with the dice button, entering the name of one's favourite object and navigating around, and switching wavelength and/or observatory, or via the Science mode, which also enables users to download the relevant data, and much more.

ESA's Planetary Science Archive website, the go-to platform for scientists who use data from ESA's planetary missions for their research, also includes a visual gallery interface for users to browse through images and other data products.

Citizen science

A classic activity to join scientists and support their investigations from one's home is citizen science, which enables everyone to take part in real cutting edge research in many fields across the sciences, humanities, and more. There are many citizen science projects available online, most notably on The Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.

One of the most famous projects is Galaxy Zoo, launched in 2007 to invite volunteers to support astronomers in the visual inspection and classification of the shapes of galaxies in astronomical images. It has engaged hundreds of thousands of volunteers, leading to dozens of publications based on the input of citizen scientists.

Last year, a team of astronomers, planetary scientists and software engineers based at ESA and other research institutes launched the Hubble Asteroid Hunter, a citizen science project featuring a collection of archival images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, where calculations indicate that an asteroid might have been crossing the field of view at the time of the observation.

By identifying the asteroids potentially present in these images and marking the exact position of their trails, volunteers of this Zooniverse-powered project can help scientists improve the asteroid orbit determination and better characterise these objects. This means they can determine the orbits and future trajectories of known and previously unknown asteroids with greater precision than before.

Exploring stars in the Milky Way

Another online resource to learn more about our place in the cosmos is ESA's Star Mapper, an interactive visualisation to explore the sky as measured by the Hipparcos mission. Hipparcos, which operated from 1989 to 1993, was the first space astrometry mission, obtaining precision measurements of the positions, motions and distances of more than 100 000 stars, and had a major impact on many areas of astronomy research.

The successor of Hipparcos, ESA's Gaia mission, was launched in 2013 and has been charting more than one billion stars to unprecedented precision. The first and second Gaia data releases have been revolutionising many fields in astronomy, and plenty of new discoveries are in store.

Users may explore a subset of data from the mission's second data release through another interactive visualisation, Gaia's Stellar Family Portrait, and find out more the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, a fundamental tool in astronomy to study the evolution of stars.

In addition, it is also possible to delve into the data from ESA's billion-star surveyor using Gaia Sky, a real-time, 3D, astronomy visualisation software developed at the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut (Zentrum für Astronomie Heidelberg, University of Heidelberg, Germany). Gaia Sky contains a simulation of our Solar System, a view of data from the second Gaia data release, and additional astronomical and cosmological data to visualise star clusters, nearby galaxies, distant galaxies and quasars, and the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Space resources for children

The ESA Kids website, maintained by the ESA Education office, contains lots of material and activities to entertain children at home while schools are closed, and learn about science and space in the meantime, including a monthly drawing competition.

For those who have access to paper and a printer, there is also the possibility to build paper models:

Finally, you can find below a selection of animated videos featuring some of ESA's space science missions, investigating planets and other celestial bodies in our Solar System, and beyond (these videos are available in several languages.)


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Special Rapporteur FOE condemns increased criminalization and harassment of journalists, activists, and artists exercising FOE in Cuba

Washington D.C.- The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) express concern regarding the increased harassment and criminalization of journalists, artists, human rights defenders, and opponents in Cuba, and condemn arbitrary arrests and prosecution that seek to silence those who exercise the right to freedom of expression. Likewise, they urge the State to immediately release all those detained for exercising journalism, their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and other political rights in Cuba.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur reminds the State that the use of criminal law as a mechanism to prosecute those who express opinions, information, or criticism of government authorities or policies, as well as on issues of public interest, generates a chilling effect that limits freedom of expression.

This office condemned in August 2019 the one-year prison conviction against journalist Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces, of the Cubanet media, for the alleged crime of "resistance and disobedience." Said judgment would be directly related to the coverage of a judicial process of public interest. Quiñones has been held in the Guantánamo prison since September 11, 2019, and his family members denounced that his health condition had deteriorated due to the hygienic conditions of the place. Likewise, he has been subjected to a disciplinary process for having published an article from prison on October 1, 2019.

In this regard, the offices of the IACHR and the UN Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression have sent the Cuban State a letter requesting information, pursuant to resolutions 34/18, 42/22, 34/5 of the Human Rights Council, and article 18 of the IACHR Statute, to gather information on the sanction imposed on Quiñones Haces, they also asked about the lack of due process by the Cuban State and the motivation of the judgment against said independent journalist.

The State responded to this joint communication, addressing the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, and denied these allegations; It also stated that the "true causes" of the arrest and subsequent prosecution were "the disobedience, disrespect, and resistance of police authorities on April 22, 2019," when he intended to cover a trial.

On the other hand, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was arrested on March 1, when he was going to a protest called "public kiss" in front of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, against the censorship of a gay kiss in a film broadcasted on the Cuban television. The artist had been harassed multiple times in recent years, including 21 arrests linked to his public protests. On this occasion, Otero was accused of crimes of insult against the national symbols and damage to property as a result of an artistic performance in which he appears photographed with the flag of Cuba in different situations; the prosecution would have requested a conviction of between two and five years in prison.

According to available information, the artist was detained for two weeks and was released on Saturday, March 14, but was not informed of his current procedural situation.

Regarding freedom of artistic expression, this Office had also expressed its concern regarding the sanction of decree 349/018, which regulates cultural policy and the provision of artistic services, which introduced greater restrictions on cultural and artistic expressions in Cuba. The decree requires the prior approval of any public presentation or exhibition by authorities of the Ministry of Culture and created an inspection mechanism with powers to close an event, if it determines that it is not in accordance with the cultural policy of the Revolution.

In the  most recent Ordinary Period of Sessions of the IACHR, Cuban civil society organizations also denounced that the detention of the political leader José Daniel Ferrer García, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba [Unión Patriótica de Cuba] (UNPACU), would be due to the political persecution against him. Recently, the IACHR urged the State of Cuba to comply with the precautionary measures adopted on November 5, 2012 in favor of Ferrer García, after receiving the information that he was again detained on October 1, 2019, along with other activists. "In Cuba we observe a pattern of manipulation of criminal law to hinder the exercise of political rights, in a context of lack of judicial independence. This case is of particular concern to us,” said Commissioner Stuardo Ralón Orellana, rapporteur for Cuba.

As for other forms of harassment against the press, the official restrictions are not new, but have increased in recent weeks. Independent journalist Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina was detained on January 29 at the José Martí International Airport, as he was preparing to travel to the United States to participate in a human rights event. The journalist, who was detained for 5 days and was prevented from leaving the country, stated that this occurred as a result of the accusations of human rights violations in Cuba by the Palenque Vision agency, which he directs.

For her part, the journalist for the independent digital newspaper 14yMedio, Luz Escobar, has been harassed on multiple occasions for her journalistic work, preventing her from leaving her home and forbidding her from leaving the country. In addition, she was reportedly cited by the Ministry of the Interior on February 26 by State Security agents who questioned her work as a journalist, accusing her of usurping the journalist's legal capacity and threatening to harm her family.

In the Joint Declaration on the freedom of expression of the UN rapporteurs, OSCE, IACHR, and ACPHR on the independence and diversity of the media (2018) they expressed their concern about the actions of officials to curtail the independence of the media, thereby limiting opportunities for people to access credible and reliable news sources that offer a variety of viewpoints. “States have a positive obligation to create a safe working environment for journalists; guarantee the respect of the independence of the media; and respect the freedom of movement of both local and foreign journalists,” recalled the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have indicated in their recent Special Report on the Situation of Freedom of Expression in Cuba that state agents are the main source of threats and attacks against the press in the country, a practice that must be dismantled and sanctioned. The report recommended that the State of Cuba put an end to the harassment, including summons, arrests of any length, and judicial harassment of any person for causes related to the exercise of their freedom of expression, freedom of association, assembly, or other related matters.

Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, as well as article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Cuba on February 28, 2008, protect journalistic work, artistic work, and the defense of human rights. In such a way that those who express themselves should not be under pressure when carrying out their work, covering and/or broadcasting facts of public interest.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur and the IACHR have warned on various occasions about the use of vague and ambiguous criminal figures that do not comply with the requirements of international law to criminalize journalistic work, the defense of human rights, and expressions of criticism through social networks. In the same way, the IACHR in its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression established that prison sentences to sanction expressions on public officials or issues of public interest are contrary to the inter-American legal framework.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with the aim of encouraging the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given its fundamental role in consolidating and developing the democratic system.

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IACHR Announces Work System during COVID-19 Pandemic

Washington, D.C. - Given the seriousness of the situation currently affecting Latin America and the Caribbean and the world as a result of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is announcing the exceptional measures it is adopting regarding its operations in response to recommendations from national and international health organizations.

The IACHR will continue to carry out its core functions regarding the petition and case system, precautionary measures, and the monitoring of human rights situation in the region, while complying strictly with measures to contain the virus, in accordance with the following guidelines:

  1. The IACHR Executive Secretariat team is working remotely as per the decision made by the Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) in response to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The purpose of this measure is to safeguard the health of each of the people who work at the IACHR and the people who use its mechanisms to protect and defend human rights and thus to watch over the health of the general public.
  2. Precautionary measures that are granted as a result of serious, urgent situations in which people are at risk of suffering irreparable harm will be processed as usual. Any other situation will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. During this period, the IACHR will not deactivate any precautionary measures due to a lack of information having been presented by the parties, as per Resolution 3/18.
  3. Regarding the petition and case system, the IACHR hereby notifies all users that deadlines will be put on hold from March 19 up to and including April 21, 2020, after which they will be extended to respect the original timeframes, with the following exceptions:
  4. The timeframe set out in Article 46b of the American Convention, which establishes a six-month limit for filing petitions, which will be evaluated in each specific situation if parties allege that a given petition cannot be filed;
  5. The timeframe established in Article 51 of the American Convention shall only be suspended if states submit a request for an extension to the IA Court containing a clause that expressly waives the filing of a preliminary objection to the expiry of this timeframe.
  6. To ensure the continuity of its work, the IACHR will continue to communicate with parties regarding the processing of petitions, cases, and friendly settlements, the deadlines for which will be interrupted and extended as described above.
  7. The IACHR deems that all parties have been duly notified of these changes to deadlines and timeframes through this press release.
    Working meetings on friendly settlements will be rescheduled.
  8. The activities planned as part of the IACHR’s calendar for 2020—including working visits, public hearings, and promotional activities—have been canceled to comply with the measures to prevent the spread of the virus and protect both the organization's technical team and the populations it works with. These activities will be rescheduled as soon as is feasible.
  9. Similarly, as was announced on March 11, 2020, the 176th Period of Sessions, which was to be held in May, has been canceled. However, the requests for hearings and working meetings that were submitted in connection with this remain in force. The deadline for submitting new requests will be announced when the new location and date of the period of sessions are confirmed.
  10. The IACHR will continue to assist users online, and requests can be sent to the following email address CIDHDenuncias@oas.org. The IACHR invites users to visit the individual petition system portalto submit information on petitions, cases, and precautionary measures.

These exceptional approaches to the IAHCR’s work will be constantly reviewed and any changes will be announced publicly in response to developments in the current health crisis to ensure that all necessary efforts are made to enable the IACHR to continue to perform its functions fully. To this end, the IACHR commissioners continue to go about their work remotely and are in constant communication with one another to ensure that the Executive Secretariat continues to operate effectively under these exceptional circumstances.

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Coronavirus and ESA’s duty of care

MADRID, (ESA).- Last week, many ESA staff and contractors were advised to stay at home and take up teleworking, but the weekend saw border restrictions, closure of schools, shops and centres of social activity in France, Spain and the Netherlands, and even more stringent measures in other host nations. Pre-empting these events, ESA decided to apply this condition to the majority of ESA personnel across all establishments.

Several weeks ago, ESA’s management team began the process to confirm the list of critical tasks that ESA needs to protect, and identify the key resources that are required to support them, should the response to the coronavirus pandemic call for more stringent measures designed to reduce social interaction.

ESA Director General Jan Wörner said, “The health and welfare of our employees, their families and their communities remain my top priority. ESA has a duty of care to them all. But at the same time, we must also protect the core tasks of the Agency. My business priority has to be to ensure that these critical tasks continue uninterrupted.”

Only key workers required to support the formally identified critical tasks will be active at ESA sites, with all others now teleworking wherever possible both to reduce unnecessary social interaction and to allow maximum focus on critical tasks.

The ESA Council scheduled for 17/18 March was cancelled, but ESA management is working to identify the best process to allow executive committee approval of actions if necessary. Business continuity in the financial and procurement areas is being maintained.

The European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, is also adopting significant restrictions on operations and access. In compliance with measures decided by the French government, launch campaigns under way at the centre have been suspended. These launch preparations will resume as soon as health conditions allow. See the Arianespace press release

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