International

The Politics Of Humanitarian Assistance And How Disasters Get Entangled In Geopolitics

Politics is not forgotten even during a major humanitarian crisis, the politics within the country as well as that of major powers in an area of conflict.

Turkey Earthquake
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On a lazy Saturday morning, around 11:56 local time in April 2015, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, sent shockwaves through Nepal. Buildings crashed, people ran out of their homes, and the shock triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 22 climbers and another in Langtang valley where 250 people were reported missing. Nepal was left devastated.

Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the Indian Air Force and Indian Army to launch rescue and relief operations. In about two to three hours, Indian teams were on the ground in Nepal. Modi was on the phone with then Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala assuring him of all help. 

The government and the people of Nepal were grateful for New Delhi’s prompt action.

But within a week or so the appreciation turned into resentment. This had much to do with Indian media’s loud proclamation of New Delhi’s stellar role in the Nepal rescue and relief operations. IAF pilots were ever ready to accommodate Indian media crews on their plane as they went out to distribute aid. Nepalese were irritated.

Images were flashed back to television screens across India in praise of the government’s quick response. The local people felt that the seats occupied by the media crew could have been better utilised in airlifting the injured to hospitals in Kathmandu. 

This took away the initial goodwill of ordinary Nepali citizens. Kanak Dixit, a well-known public figure had this to say: “The best kind of disaster aid is quiet and altruistic, with no chest-thumping. India’s assistance during the April 2015 earthquake was prompt, but the way the Indian media tried to take credit for India was unnecessary and took away some of the shine of a good act in the eyes of the Nepali public”.

Winning brownie points for governments or promoting a country’s strategic or political interests should not be the consideration during a crisis. The principles of aid during a humanitarian crisis are well laid out by the UN. Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence, are the four guiding principles of humanitarian aid. In everyday language this simply means that human suffering must be addressed wherever it happens, no political, economic, or military considerations should come in the way of helping people. But the reality is very different.

Fewer people would have died in Türkiye and Syria if rescue teams would have reached the region in time. It is only now nearly 10 days later that humanitarian aid is getting to the victims of the massive earthquake that shook the border areas straddling southern Türkiye and northern Syria.

The problem is the politics of the region. Politics is not forgotten even during a major humanitarian crisis, the politics within the country as well as that of major powers in an area of conflict. Earthquakes like other natural disasters do not respect physical boundaries. Unfortunately, the worst affected areas are located in border areas filled with Syrians fleeing the civil war, Kurd minorities as well as local Turks. Kurds living in Türkiye have been at the receiving end of President Erdogan’s wrath. 

Across the border in Syria, there are large areas under the control of anti-Assad forces, where there is fear of the Syrian army. To top it all, Syria is under Western sanctions. The sanctions should have been lifted immediately. But that too took time. It was at the UN urgings that sanctions finally got lifted.

“Even during natural disasters, when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, it is gravely concerning that humanitarian actors face persisting challenges due to sanctions, including with regard to procurement procedures and bank transfers. It is reported that the Syrian diaspora is unable to provide financial support through remittances or other means of funding,” the UN said in a statement.

“The delay in responding to a humanitarian crisis because of the unilateral sanctions led to the death of hundreds of civilians. During natural calamities, countries leave conflicts and disputes aside and rush to help, but in Syria’s case we were left to our own destiny,’’ said Syrian journalist Waeil Awwad.

Civil war has wracked Syria. The Sunni majority of the country, helped by Türkiye, Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Arab nations, armed and financed the anti-Assad groups. The President, like his father Hafiz Assad, belonging to the Alawite minority community, ruled with an iron fist. However, minorities including the Christians and the Tribals were treated well and support the regime.  

Twelve years of civil war have damaged Syria. When President Bashar al Assad found himself completely isolated by the region as well as the West, he turned to Russia and Iran for succor. Russian troops were based in Syria and ensured that Damascus and the nearby areas remain under government control. But since last year, Assad’s Gulf neighbours have changed their stand. For the first time, he travelled out of the country to the UAE after the civil war in March 2022. The US criticized the move. But now along with other Gulf kingdoms, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also sending relief material.

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former diplomat K.P. Fabian said, “Humanitarian aid should not require any justification by way of promoting the national interest of the donor. In the case of Türkiye and Syria, the international community, especially the rich North, should have acted on a war-footing. Alas, President Biden spoke on day one to Erdogan of Türkiye, but not to Assad of Syria. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first tweet ignored Syria, though to the credit of the MEA the mistake was rectified with some alacrity. The West should have suspended sanctions against Syria on day one. 

“There should be no attitude of me first and what is required is seamless cooperation to save lives and help the survivors. India as the current G-20 chair should convene an international conference jointly with the UN.’’

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India has been quick to respond to the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria, one of the first few nations together with Germany, Israel, Italy and Iraq to reach Türkiye with help. 

As a country hoping to emerge as a major global player in the world stage, it is vital for India to be in a position to respond to humanitarian crisis not just in its neighbourhood, but also as far as it can reach. 

This response in a year when India is hosting the G-20 Summit and is projecting itself as voice of the global south falls into place nicely. It also helps to build the reputation of Prime Minister Modi as a global leader ahead of the 2024 elections.

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“Operation Dost is India’s latest expression of being a first responder, a net security provider, and a country whose Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) response is quick and available to countries not only in the neighbouring region, but also beyond,’’ the MEA said in a statement.

Yet India did not extend a helping hand to Pakistan during last year’s devastating floods. Every country plays its cards keeping in mind political and strategic considerations.

India has expertise in evacuating its citizens from war-torn areas. The Indian Air Force did so in 2000 during the Gulf War and when Kuwait was invaded. But it was during the 2004 tsunami that India built a reputation as an effective humanitarian force, from sending out helicopters within 12 hours to Sri Lanka to operating hospital ships in Indonesia and carrying out rescue efforts in the Maldives, Thailand, and other affected countries.

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The multi- lateral coordination during the 2004 tsunami of the United States, Japan, India, Australia was the first step in formalising the quadrilateral security dialogue that was formed in 2007 at the initiative of late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

That initial effort  fizzled off soon after with both Australia and India unwilling to irritate China, but it finally took off in 2017 as the Quad, aimed at containing Chinese power and influence in the Indo-Pacific. Since 2004, India has ramped up its disaster management response and it regards itself as a leader in humanitarian assistance in the region. 

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