The politicisation of disaster response

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 21 Feb 2023

The global response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria has shown how politics have trumped humanitarianism worldwide.

A man walks past debris from destroyed buildings in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 21,
A man walks past debris from destroyed buildings in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. The death toll in Turkey and Syria rose to eight in a new and powerful earthquake that struck two weeks after a devastating temblor killed nearly 45,000 people, authorities and media said Tuesday. AP


No wide appeals for donations and humanitarian assistance were launched in western countries to help the victims of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last week, as had earlier been the case in the aftermath of other natural disasters in Asia or elsewhere.

Even the international aid bodies, including the UN agencies, were not swift to provide the necessary help to the areas affected by the disaster.

Some blamed logistical hurdles, though the work of aid and rescue teams is normally carried out in destroyed areas. Others, including the UN bodies, blamed the sanctions on Syria and rival control of the affected areas as obstacles preventing the swift delivery of aid.

Only a few countries ignored these political issues and were quick to send aid and humanitarian assistance to both countries. Among them were the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, China, and others.

Emirati media commentator Rashid Murooshid reiterated the UAE position on humanitarian assistance as a matter that is beyond politics or any consideration other than basic human principles.

“The UAE was a pioneer during the coronavirus pandemic, not only in offering personal protection equipment (PPE) to those countries in need, but also in rapidly developing testing and other measures and providing those to every country that sought help,” Murooshid told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Its humanitarian assistance spans all continents, especially in natural disasters, with no consideration for the race, colour, or religion of those in need. That’s why it was among the first to send aid and help to both Turkey and Syria.”

Murooshid stressed that aid and humanitarian assistance were delivered, regardless of political complications or political control. “What mattered was ordinary people in need of help, regardless of any political slant,” he added.

The UN has now admitted that it “let the Syrians down” in the earthquake disaster, but it was a belated admission with a hollow meaning, according to some. The US State Department defended the sanctions on Syria, claiming it was not hindering aid delivery to the affected areas. The rest of the West is busy providing arms and ammunition to the war in Ukraine.

Yet, it was not only the West that politicised humanitarian assistance to those affected by the natural disaster in Turkey and Syria. Geopolitics played a role even in the national efforts made. The vast majority of the areas affected are in southeast Turkey, where the majority of the population is Kurds.

Despite claims that there is no discrimination, some analysts have noted that Ankara’s disenchantment with the Kurds is an underlying issue in its policies in those areas. The Kurds are also the inhabitants of northern Syria, where some areas are under the control of militant groups supported by Turkey.

Many observers agree that Syria has been the least helped in the disaster, and that many lives could have been saved if it had not been for geopolitical rivalries. Finally, ordinary people pay the price for such feuds, analysts say, but they note that they should not have been an excuse for the West to ignore the disaster and not provide humanitarian assistance.

Some even recalled other recent instances showing a decline of human solidarity in the face of disasters that are not man-made. Early in the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, some countries even appropriated supplies donated to others or outbid contracts for PPE and ventilators, depriving countries more affected by the virus of the means to prevent mounting deaths.

Italy and Serbia were cases in point, as other European countries seized the supplies for them provided by China.

Noting the West’s indifference to the Turkish and Syrian victims of the earthquakes, many remembered the recent rhetoric of western reporters covering the Ukraine war last year. Many network correspondents, from CBS to Aljazeera English, told their western viewers that the Ukrainians were “relatively civilised” when compared to refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria.

One US NBC reporter described the Ukrainians as being different from the Syrians because they were “Christians” and “white”. The BBC hosted somebody who said that “it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”

No wonder the recent racist cartoon by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the earthquakes and their human toll did not stir strong reactions, except from a few Arab media figures. Entitled “Earthquake in Turkey” and showing heaps of rubble and collapsing buildings, the cartoon caption read “don’t even need to send tanks”.

The reference to tanks was to the reluctance among some Europeans to send tanks to Kiev.

The politicisation of the humanitarian response to natural disasters, causing huge number of fatalities, widespread destruction, and lasting human suffering, is on the rise. This is the case not only in the West, but probably also around the world, except in a few countries where people still stick to basic human principles.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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