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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2589

UN Urges Myanmar Government to allow Humanitarian Workers into Affected Areas – No Implementation of R2P

Daya Gamage – US National Correspondent Asian Tribune

Washington, D.C. 17 May (Asiantribune.com):With aid arriving in Myanmar in increasing quantities, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator urged the country’s Government to allow international relief workers into the area affected by the recent cyclone, in order to distribute supplies and coordinate assistance.

Speaking to correspondents at a Headquarters press conference Thursday afternoon, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that there was a “huge frustration” that, while able to enter the country and Yangon, international relief workers were not allowed to move into the affected area. On the whole, notwithstanding “small signs of progress” in some areas, the relief getting through “under the kind of restrictions we’re operating under is by no means adequate to the task, and it is hard to see how just continuing with the status quo could be sufficient”, he said.

Asked if the current situation was a test of the principle of responsibility to protect (R2P), he said that he did not think it was. The notion had not been designed to be applicable to this kind of situation. It would be very dangerous if the current crisis was seen as a test of the principle and the principle to have failed. Responsibility to protect was a very valuable concept, which was still being developed. It amounted to more than a question about whether there were airdrops carried out against the wishes of Myanmar’s Government.

Stressing the need for a multilateral and multinational response, “given the size of the crisis and to avoid the second wave of deaths” from the spread of disease, he said that national staff and non-governmental organizations on the ground were doing a heroic job under the circumstances, but the resources were increasingly over-stretched. Expert assistance and guidance from trained international staff were needed.

Providing an overview of the situation in the country, he said that official sources now put the number of dead at 38,491, with 27,838 missing, but he feared that the figures could turn out to be significantly higher. Current estimates pointed to between 1.6 million and 2.5 million people severely affected by the consequences of the cyclone, and there was more heavy rain in the forecast.

Some 550,000 people had now gathered in rudimentary camps in the delta area, but international humanitarian staff was not allowed there, he continued. There were now 100 United Nations international staff in Myanmar, and close to 40 visas had been granted for United Nations staff. About 46 visas had also been issued for non-governmental organizations. “Welcome as far as it goes”, there was also a small sign of “selective opening-up”; the authorities had invited their immediate neighbors -- Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China -- to send 160 humanitarian workers. Also, an emergency assessment team from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was about to arrive in the country.

Food, water, medical supplies and shelter materials were arriving in Myanmar in increasing quantities from United Nations agencies, the Red Cross movement, non-governmental organizations and bilateral donors, but the question was how much of that aid was getting to the affected areas and people, he said. The World Food Program (WFP) had delivered 700 tons of rice, high-energy biscuits and beans, enough to feed some 100,000 people. The agencies were also purchasing food locally. On the health side, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) were providing supplies for local health clinics, which was critical in case diseases like dysentery began spreading. Twenty-five thousand tarpaulins had already been distributed to households, with 50,000 more on the way. Other supplies included water tanks, a water treatment plant and water purification tablets.

Logistics were absolutely key in getting aid into the country and distributing it to the affected population. It was a matter of huge regret that Myanmar had not yet accepted any of the numerous offers of civilian and military personnel, helicopters and engineering teams. He urged the authorities to open as much as it could, and as soon as it could. That could make a big difference, because it was obvious that the national resources available were not adequate to cope with the problems.

Regarding financial resources, he said that some $115 million had been either received or pledged, bilaterally or through the flash appeal. The appeal had been for $187 million altogether, but the amount needed had been revised to almost $200 million.

Responding to numerous questions, he said that there was no actual blockage to the delivery of aid to the country or the delta area. However, there were significant logistic, coordination and distribution needs, and that was where the problem of the lack of international staff in the affected area became critical. International relief workers were currently turned back at roadblocks, and that was unacceptable. That was reducing the possibility of distribution being carried out in an expert way.

Regarding concerns about possible diversion of aid or fraud, he said there was no evidence of that, so far. The checks of local markets that had been conducted by some embassies had not revealed anything detectable or significant.

The Security Council and Human Rights Council had been unable to act on Myanmar, a correspondent commented, asking if the United Nations was the right organization to shoulder the responsibility for providing aid to Myanmar.

“If not the United Nations, then who?” Mr. Holmes replied. The United Nations was the multilateral organization with the legitimacy to address humanitarian aid issues. The Organization could not force people to accept what it would like them to do -- that was essentially the problem with which it was grappling. That was also the reason the United Nations was trying to work particularly closely with ASEAN and other neighbors, who might have better bilateral influence in Myanmar and better links with the country, “to increase pressure on them to accept what is clearly needed, which is greater willingness to accept international help in the form of people and freedom of movement and assets, as well as just the actual material goods and money”. The United Nations would continue to “do everything it possibly can, through every possible channel” to continue the process of opening up, which was absolutely vital.

To another question, he added that the United Nations had been in touch with Myanmar’s immediate neighbors and fellow ASEAN members to encourage them to use their contacts and influence with the country’s authorities to open up. He believed they all agreed that it was needed, and many of them had similar problems in trying to establish direct dialogue with the authorities, but they were all trying. For example, the Thai Prime Minister was going to Myanmar today, with the blessing of the Secretary-General “to try to open up some of those channels through direct dialogue with the leadership, which seems allergic to the telephone”.

Asked if international agencies could direct supplies to those they considered in need, he said that, at the moment, they had “a reasonable degree of freedom” to decide where aid went. Once the goods were placed at a warehouse, their local staff could either deliver them or use a local non-governmental organization to distribute them. In particular, the Myanmar Red Cross had a large number of volunteers on the ground. So far, he had not seen any reports that the agencies were directed to deliver aid to a particular group or area.

- Asian Tribune -

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