(New York) - Countries delivering relief aid to Burma should insist on monitoring to ensure aid reaches the cyclone victims most in need and to prevent the military government from seizing it, Human Rights Watch said today. Simply dropping aid off at Rangoon airport under the control of the abusive and ill-equipped Burmese military will not necessarily help victims of the cyclone. Some supplies have already been diverted, Human Rights Watch said, adding that humanitarian aid deliveries need to be independently monitored to ensure that assistance is given to those most in need.
“The delivery of relief supplies can’t be left entirely in the hands of Burma’s abusive military, or aid simply won’t reach those most in need," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Without independent monitors on the ground, we can’t be sure the aid is reaching those most at risk.”
Following the massive devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has severely limited the deployment of foreign aid workers and prohibited those within the country from accessing the worst-affected areas of the Irrawaddy Delta. Aid flights to Burma have increased in the past few days, bringing assistance from United Nations agencies, nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments, although this is just a fraction of what is needed. Airlifts of supplies from Pakistan, Thailand, and agencies such as the UN World Food Programme have been prominently covered in the state-controlled media apparently being handed to military personnel for distribution.
The United States has sent eight flights of aid goods, which upon arrival at Rangoon airport were transferred directly to Burmese military helicopters for further distribution. US officials acknowledged concern about whether the aid would reach cyclone survivors, and said they would be in contact with international humanitarian groups to verify its arrival. Human Rights Watch remains concerned about a lack of monitoring at Rangoon airport and throughout the transport process to ensure that all aid is delivered as intended.
Human Rights Watch confirmed an Associated Press report in which high-protein biscuits supplied by the international community had been seized by the military, and that low-quality, locally produced substitutes were instead delivered to communities in need.
Footage from CNN showed a US aid plane being unloaded by Burmese wearing T-shirts with a “USDA” logo, that belongs to Burma’s Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). USDA is a mass-based governmental organization deeply implicated in political repression and human rights abuses in Burma. In the past, the government has often tried to impose cooperation with the USDA on international humanitarian agencies operating in the country. Human Rights Watch has long expressed concern about the USDA’s involvement in human rights abuses. During the September 2007 mass protests in Rangoon, USDA militia groups, and their connected militia, the Swan Arr Shin (“Masters of Force”), were used widely to detain, beat, and intimidate peaceful protesters. UN agencies have refused to work with the USDA on past developmental projects because of their involvement in such abuses and repression.
In the past, some international humanitarian organizations such as the Global Fund and Médicins Sans Frontières France have expressed grave concerns and even pulled out of Burma because of concerns about the manipulation of aid distribution by the military government.
United Nations officials have publicly expressed concern that the current delivery of aid allowed by the government is insufficient for the scale of the problem. However, the government has not only continued to delay unnecessarily the issuance of visas to UN and foreign aid workers, but has prevented or sharply curtailed those present inside Burma from accessing the worst-affected Irrawaddy Delta areas. On May 12, Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein instructed local businessmen in Rangoon that they were permitted to send aid shipments to the Delta, but that no foreigners or cameras to document the scale of the devastation were allowed.
Internationally recognized humanitarian principles, such as the International Red Cross “Code of Conduct” for disaster relief set out widely accepted guidelines for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Aid is to be given impartially, calculated on the basis of need alone, without adverse distinction of any kind. Having unimpeded access to affected populations is fundamental. Those providing assistance are expected to ensure appropriate monitoring of aid distributions and to regularly conduct assessments of the impact of disaster assistance.
The “Code of Conduct” also sets out recommendations for governments of disaster-affected countries. These include the need for host governments to permit proffered assistance and to facilitate rapid access to disaster victims. Governments should waive requirements for visas or ensure they are rapidly granted. Relief supplies and equipment should be allowed free and unrestricted passage and should not be subject to usual import licenses or taxes. The Burmese government has stalled on issuing visas to aid workers waiting in Thailand and other countries.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the comments from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he registered his “deep concern, and immense frustration, at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis.” Ban called “in the most strenuous terms, on the Government of Myanmar to put its people’s lives first.” Human Rights Watch calls on all UN agencies and international agencies to remain resolute in pressing the SPDC to allow in international aid workers and monitor aid distribution.
“Demanding an effective humanitarian response to the devastation in Burma is not about playing politics with aid,” said Adams. “Without a vastly increased humanitarian presence inside Burma and free access to those at risk, many of the affected communities will be beyond reach, and more people are going to die.”