The Tsunami Tragedy: Political, Economic, and Environmental Lessons

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

January 25, 2005

I have been asked to focus on issues of concern in the humanitarian response to the tsunami that could have longer-term implications.

First, let us look at funding issues. There has been an extraordinary outpouring of international aid in response to the tsunami. Indeed, the international community is generally far more willing to come to the aid of people left destitute by natural disasters than those forced from their homes by civil wars, communal strife and human rights violations. But even in the case of natural disasters, where governments make generous pledges, they don’t always fulfill them. Of the nearly $1 billion appealed for by the UN, pledges from governments now total more than $800 million. But how much of that will actually materialize as international attention and resources shift to other emergencies? Recall that pledges for the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran were not all fulfilled and there are survivors still living in tents. In the case of Afghanistan, a Marshall Plan was promised, but reconstruction aid has not kept pace with that promise.

The UN for the first time is developing a tracking system that will show pledges and also receipts to try to hold pledging governments accountable. But the extent to which UN officials will really be able to expose and shame governments to follow through on their pledges is doubtful. What isn’t doubtful is that in the aftermath of many emergencies substantial numbers remain displaced for protracted periods, forgotten by their own governments and the international community. Staying power is a rare commodity when it comes to rehabilitation and longer-term reconstruction and development.

A second issue I would highlight is the exercise of national sovereignty in disasters. Primary responsibility for protecting and assisting affected populations lies with national governments, but increasingly national responsibility is seen to include cooperating with the international community when the government is unable to help those in need within its borders. It is therefore important to look at how national and international responsibility intersects and whether it is working to the best advantage of those affected by the tsunami. The effective exercise of national responsibility will after all determine whether survivors of the tsunami will be able to get on with their lives or whether large numbers will remain homeless, without basic services and without jobs, which could prove destabilizing for countries and regions.

This must be borne in mind when governments in the region announce that they can cope on their own or that they will not accept international aid in all forms or that foreign military involved in disaster relief will have to leave by a certain date. To be sure, the national capacity and level of development of countries such as India and Thailand may make unnecessary extensive international aid. But questions do arise. For example, after initially denying foreign aid groups entry to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, the Indian government, according to press accounts, took four days to bring in food and then left the first shipment on a broken jetty difficult for survivors to reach. India’s record, moreover, in dealing with persons displaced inside its own country by conflict and development projects has been mixed. Indeed, Indian journalists and civil society members have called upon the government to allow local NGOs and international organizations access to the northeast of the country where an estimated 200,000 persons displaced by tribal and ethnic conflict have been largely neglected and to whom foreign access has been barred. How the Indian government over the long term will deal with those displaced by the tsunami merits careful examination. In the case of Thailand, which has rejected international emergency aid, the government has reportedly not been helping the thousands of Burmese migrants living in Thai coastal areas and made homeless by the tsunami. In Indonesia, some have questioned whether the Indonesian military will be able to effectively take over from foreign militaries engaged in disaster relief by the March 26 deadline for their decreed departure by the Indonesian government. Moreover, some relief groups have claimed that they could have sped up the delivery of aid to Aceh if the military and air traffic controllers had accepted help in managing relief flights.

A third issue to consider is whether relief funds will be provided in such a way as to help people make the transition from emergency aid to rehabilitation and development. In many post-disaster situations, there is a large gap between emergency aid and the programs to help people get back on their feet and become self-sustaining. Whether humanitarian and development agencies will work closely and effectively together, and whether the World Bank will become involved speedily and early on, remains to be seen. USAID and a number of NGOs are setting up food for work programs to enable people to immediately begin working to try to avoid the long-term dependency and protracted displacement endemic in the aftermath of too many emergency situations. The UN is also moving from emergency relief to rebuilding communities – a positive sign.

A fourth concern critical to future peace and stability is whether the relief effort in countries with long-standing civil conflicts like Sri Lanka and Indonesia will become opportunities for governments and insurgent groups to work together and contribute to peace processes or whether more conflict will result. A Sri Lankan colleague of mine wrote me that he considers the relief and reconstruction effort an opportunity to promote an inclusive process that would involve the Tamil relief groups associated with the LTTE, civil society, the business sector and minority groups, in particular the Muslims in Tamil areas. He hoped that the international community and his government would use the relief effort to encourage political reconciliation.

To date, reports have been mixed. The Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers have been coordinating relief efforts together, by most accounts successfully, but competition and jockeying for influence has also been reported, and tensions are expected to arise over control of reconstruction funds. The Tamil Tigers have accused the government of using the disaster as a pretext for sending government troops into Tamil-controlled areas while the government has charged the Tamil Tigers with using the tsunami to recruit new members and reinforce its political and military strength.

In Aceh, Indonesia, where no formal ceasefire is in place, a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to disrupt aid efforts has been reported between the military and the GAM (Free Aceh Movement); foreign aid workers have gained access to areas previously closed off; and talks are expected to resume shortly between the GAM and the military. At the same time, 40,000 Indonesian troops are in Aceh with more reported coming, a state of emergency is in place, and the military is in control of incoming aid, of displaced persons camps, of the travel of aid workers throughout Aceh. While the military has been helping the population, its interest in having foreign troops leave by the end of March has made some question whether the military is planning to resume counter insurgency operations or is using the disaster to reinforce its control over all of Aceh.

A final question is whether human rights and protection issues are being effectively addressed. The focus of the relief effort to date has been on bringing clean water, food, health care and shelter to survivors, identifying and burying the dead, making plans for longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction, and creating an early warning system to reduce future loss of life. But what I would call human rights and protection concerns have received less attention, even though addressing them would promote greater peace and stability.

Among the more pressing problems reported have been restrictions on access to affected populations; discrimination in the provision of aid to certain ethnic and political groups; pressures on IDPs to move to resettlement camps in ways that give rise to abuse; potentially threatening military presence in and around camps, a problem in Aceh; recruitment of children into rebel forces to replace those lost to the tsunami, reported in Sri Lanka; trafficking of children; loss of documentation by survivors leading to problems with compensation, property ownership, inheritance and other issues; exploitation and abuse of young women, especially in camps; exclusion of women from camp management and from participation in the planning of relocation and reconstruction programs; danger from landmines and unexploded ordinance uncovered or shifted around by the tsunami.

Clearly, strategies need to be developed for addressing the human rights and protection dimension of the tsunami. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the first international standards for IDPs, could well serve as a framework for addressing these concerns. Strategies could include setting up human rights monitoring systems; deploying protection staff in camps; a role for national human rights institutions — the Sri Lankan commission has already undertaken an active role; training military and police in dealing with displaced populations; integrating human rights and protection concerns into long-term humanitarian and development programs; and including the displaced and civil society, especially women, in the design and management of relocation and reconstruction.

Aid programs that pay attention to such concerns have a better chance of becoming sustainable and contributing to the long-term stability of these countries.