(New York) - The United Nations Security Council should insist that aid deliveries and humanitarian workers be given unfettered access to Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government has blocked supplies and humanitarian workers from reaching areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis.
Official Burmese government estimates of the death toll have risen to 77,738, with some 55,917 missing. Other estimates of the dead are considerably higher. Yet more than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta region, rendering an estimated 2.4 million people homeless and in need of food and medical care, the World Food Programme said it had been able to provide aid to only approximately 30 percent of victims. Whole areas of the delta have still not received any assistance.
While the Burmese government has accepted more aid flights and granted more visas to aid workers in recent days, this continues to be just a fraction of the total needed. Meanwhile, ships from France, the United Kingdom and the United States packed with aid that could save large numbers of lives and alleviate the suffering of survivors continue to be refused entry.
“The Security Council is avoiding its responsibilities to save lives by not insisting that Burma accept all aid and humanitarian workers being offered,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is not acceptable to dither and allow large numbers of people to die while ships are sitting offshore and humanitarian workers are in Bangkok ready to deliver aid.”
There are now an estimated 120 official or makeshift shelter camps housing some 150,000 internally displaced people in parts of Laputta and Bogale townships alone. International health organizations have reported isolated outbreaks of cholera and are fearful that respiratory diseases and the effects of poor sanitation and access to drinking water will increase the spread of illness.
Human Rights Watch is dismayed that the words of John Holmes, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to the Security Council are still as relevant today as they were on May 9, when he made the statement: “The sooner humanitarians are allowed in, and the less procedural and other obstacles we encounter, the more lives we can help save. The speed with which we deliver assistance to those in need is becoming more and more critical and the danger of the outbreak of epidemics rises by the hour.”
“Until the Burmese government opens its doors to all aid offered, unnecessary deaths and suffering will continue,” said Adams. “How many failed and inconclusive meetings and visits to Burma by diplomats will it take before the UN Security Council acts?”
Human Rights Watch applauded the efforts of Burmese and international relief workers operating in difficult circumstances. The majority of the aid work being carried out in the delta is by Burmese national staff of the World Food Programme, Save the Children, World Vision and other intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as by local Red Cross workers.
On May 19, the ASEAN announced that it would establish a coordinated response to the emergency. The Burmese government agreed to accept medical teams from all ASEAN countries, while ASEAN has sent an “Emergency Rapid Assessment Team” to Burma.
“While the ASEAN initiative may turn out to be a step forward, it does not have the capacity to address all the urgent needs faced by Burma’s cyclone survivors,” said Adams. “Governments and aid agencies should not delude themselves into thinking otherwise.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to open cyclone-affected areas to a major international relief effort by immediately granting visas to aid workers, by allowing UN and international humanitarian agencies to distribute the aid they provide directly to those in need, and by allowing countries with military assets nearby to deliver aid by air and sea to survivors who cannot be reached quickly any other way. Many affected communities are only accessible by air and sea, which makes assistance by countries that are equipped to deal with humanitarian disasters essential.
Under international law, the 2 million or so people thought to have been made homeless by the cyclone are considered internally displaced. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a state should not arbitrarily withhold permission for international humanitarian organizations and other appropriate actors to provide aid, “particularly when authorities concerned are unable or unwilling to provide the required humanitarian assistance.” The principles further state that “All authorities concerned shall grant and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance and grant persons engaged in the provision of such assistance rapid and unimpeded access to the internally displaced.”
Human Rights Watch said that China, India, Thailand and other members of ASEAN with close relations with Burma should press Burma’s government to lift restrictions on international assistance so aid can reach survivors of Cyclone Nargis.
“The Chinese government has shown unprecedented openness in accepting international aid after the earthquake in Sichuan,” said Adams. “Yet it does not appear to be doing anything to pressure the Burmese government to respond to the cyclone with the same urgency and openness. China has blocked concerted UN Security Council action in the past, but after the quake it must shift its policy to put people ahead of politics.”