Pakistan's Floods: A Crisis of Empathy

Pakistani flood survivors gather at a makeshift tent camp in Sultan Kot on August 16, 2010.

It is being described by the United Nations as the worst catastrophe in its history, with nearly fourteen million people affected and a third of Pakistan’s territory under water.   Nearly 1600 people died in the immediate aftermath of the floods but hundreds and possibly even thousands more are expected to perish as deadly diseases begin to spread through the displaced populations spread through the affected populations.  According to U.N estimates nearly 3.5 million children are at risk of water borne diseases and thousands of cholera cases are expected in the next few days.  The weather forecast continues to be unrelenting with further flooding expected as rains continue through the week.

Catastrophe of this magnitude visited upon a country already flailing under the weight of terrorist attacks and poor governance is an indescribable tragedy.  But the dimensions of Pakistan’s calamity have been exacerbated not simply by the vagaries of nature but by the inability of the world to join the effort to save Pakistan’s submerged millions.

After a tour of the affected areas U.N Secretary General Ban ki Moon once again urged the international community to come to Pakistan’s aid pointing out that only a quarter of the 459 million dollars in aid have actually arrived.  In the meantime, six million people are still living under the open sky without potable water or any food supply often scrambling under any available shelter and scrounging for food.   With the Pakistani Government mired in its own ineptitude and problems of logistics and corruption Pakistani NGOs and other citizens are essentially coordinating the flood relief effort on their own using virtual mapping to allow anyone who is helping to report incidents to see where help is needed.

Shockingly the cavalcade of bereft images, emaciated men clutching driftwood, women grasping half naked babies and villages and towns inundated in the ubiquitous murky brown have all failed to arouse the world’s sympathy.  While millions around the globe opened their coffers for the victims of the Asian Tsunami and the Haitian earthquake, few have done so for Pakistan.  Hollywood stars, usually quick to rally around victims of humanitarian catastrophe have been eerily silent in coming to the aid of millions of Pakistan’s hapless flood victims.

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Dear President Obama, When you meet with President Peres …

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, flew to the United States to give a speech at the 2009 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual conference in Washington DC Monday and to meet with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.  YouTube already has a video of his speech.

Although George Mitchell, Special Envoy to the Middle East who was appointed by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with Israeli officials, this will be the first meeting between President Obama and a high ranking official from the newly established Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu which is considered ’right-wing’.

 AIUSA asked President Obama to raise the issues of increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and the eviction of Palestinian families and demolition of homes in east Jerusalem.  Despite repeated U.S. statements condemning the demolitions and settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, settlement expansion and demolitions continue.  Settlement building/expansion, evictions and demolitions in occupied territory are also illegal under international law.

Demolitions in east Jerusalem have increased dramatically in the last two years with wide swathes of land slated for demolitions.  Settlement expansion which has been in the works for some time is now being given the green light by newly elected government officials. 

Obama has also been asked to follow up on recent events in Gaza.  Despite statements by Sec’y Clinton that goods and humanitarian aid is getting into the Gaza Strip, other sources such as the U.N. and other monitors on the ground continue to report excessive restrictions which continue to keep out spare parts for medical equipment or equipment needed to rebuild, such as bulldozers.

We’ve also asked that Obama urge Israel to cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the team created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and under the leadership of Justice Richard Goldstone, a highly respected war crimes prosecutor.  Justice Goldstone has stated that he will be investigating the allegations of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.  The team is currently meeting in Geneva to organize and outline their investigation into war crimes committed during the Gaza crisis.  The government of Israel has publicly stated that they do not plan to cooperate with the team.

Even though the two leaders will be focused on the peace process, human rights are directly linked to any workable resolution.  Both parties must respect the basic human rights of each other and the United States must play a key role in getting all the  parties involved to recognize this basic tenet.

UPDATE May 6, 2009: Video covering comments made at AIPAC conference and responses.

Great animated short on blockade of Gaza

Gisha, Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, an Israeli non-profit organization, produced this powerful animated short, ‘Closed Zone’.   They tapped the talent of Yoni Goodman, the animator of the award winning animated film ‘Waltz with Bashir’:

You can also watch the short video on the making of ‘Closed Zone’.

In the meantime, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is in the Middle East committing $900 million in aid to the Palestinians.  The issue remains how the aid being purchased is to make it into the Gaza Strip to the people that need it.  Secretary Clinton urged the Israeli government to allow more aid into the strip, but stopped short of asking for full, unhindered access.  Israel, as a gesture, has agreed to let more aid in.  Over 80% of the 1.5 million depend on aid from outside sources and the 100+/day trucks being allowed in are simply not enough to deal with the incredibly dire humanitarian situation.

UN Pledges $613 Million in Aid for Gaza

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed in an interview at the World Economic Forum for the international community to contribute aid for food, water, sanitation, shelter, infrastructure support, and health care for Gaza:

“As you know, I recently visited Gaza. The civilian population has suffered greatly during three weeks of military operations. More than a third of the 6,600 dead and injured were children and women. As a father of three, I was especially troubled by their suffering and the psychological trauma so many families went through.

Help is indeed needed urgently: food, clean water, shelter, medicine, restoration of basic services. Everywhere I went, I saw the evidence of critical humanitarian needs. The population were already vulnerable because of so many months of severely restricted supplies. That is why the Humanitarian Flash Appeal for Gaza that we are announcing today is so timely and so important. With the help of this $ 613 million appeal, the United Nations and other aid agencies can jump into action to help the 1.4 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to recover.”

The emphasis on psychological trauma is particularly interesting, especially considering the civilian devastation, destruction of schools and the 2,267 children who were injured or killed in the conflict.  Psychological trauma in post conflict situations does not solely affect children. Men in Gaza also face long term psychological trauma following the violence and lack of opportunity.

In the light of the World Economic Forum and the global economic crisis, perhaps the largest long term threat to human rights and humanitarian aid is economic:

“The systemic and perpetual economic hindrances imposed upon the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation are viewed by most experts to be the primary impediment to allowing the Palestinian economy to reach its full potential. The World Bank has identified three principal “paralytic effects” of Israeli policies on the Palestinian economy: access to economies of scale, access to natural resources and access to an investment horizon. It also cited physical impediments — road blocks, closures, earth mounds and the ongoing construction of the wall on West Bank land […] — as a ‘paralysis confronting the Palestinian economy’.”

The paralysis, as UN humanitarian chief John Holmes suggests, is on the border:

“Unless all of them [border crossings] are effectively opened, we’re never going to be able to get enough supplies to Gaza.”