|Art: Marcin Bondarowicz|
As massive upheavals to daily lives, creating both significant outpourings of goodwill and suddenly vulnerable communities, natural disasters can offer potent opportunities. Beyond the opportunism that can at times characterise such situations (land-grabbing, etc), significant work has gone into the possibilities for diplomacy in longstanding conflict situations – ‘disaster diplomacy’. In 2007, the Worldwatch Institute, a think tank, released a report, ‘Beyond Disasters: Creating opportunities for peace’, which looked at ‘disaster diplomacy’ experiences in Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, and Kashmir in the aftermath of the October 2005 earthquake. Himal Southasian recently spoke with Michael G Renner, one of the report’s two main researchers.
What is ‘disaster diplomacy’, and how long has it been around as an idea?
Disasters have far-reaching impacts on societies, many of them of course highly damaging. But in societies that suffer from long-standing divides and conflicts, disasters can also trigger new dynamics, challenge conventional politics, and create unique local contexts that might offer opportunities for peacemaking. The notion of disaster diplomacy builds on the fact that suffering from disasters sometimes cuts across existing divides, triggering acts of goodwill or mutual solidarity, and creating common relief needs that could potentially become a catalyst for building a degree of mutual trust.
But post-disaster opportunities typically offer only brief windows of opportunity, lasting for no more than a fleeting moment. Whether the chance for peacemaking is seized – and whether it ultimately succeeds – depends on a range of factors and circumstances: the scale of disaster, the type of conflict, the particular moment along the timeline of conflict, whether the protagonists are receptive to peace efforts, the degree to which political leaders are ready to make or respond constructively to risky overtures, but also the role of the military, international donors and civil society.
An early instance of such overtures can be found in the relationship between Greece and Turkey. Following earthquakes in both countries in 1999, mutual assistance and goodwill led towards somewhat improved bilateral relations. There have been a range of attempts to translate goodwill into tangible political change, with cases including Ethiopia-Eritrea, Taiwan-China, India-Pakistan and Cuba-United States. However, it must be said that these attempts by and large did not succeed – testimony to the fact that adversarial relationships are very difficult to transform and surmount. There is less evidence with regard to post-disaster peace overtures in domestic – for instance, civil war – situations, and the record is a decidedly mixed one to date.
Would it be correct to say that there is hesitancy towards any use of ‘disaster as opportunity’ – towards ‘politicising’ disaster situations?
In the first place, one needs to be careful with describing a disaster as an opportunity because a disaster is always a calamity for the affected people. It would be preferable to build cooperation around disaster preparedness and prevention, rather than on the basis of coping with a harmful event.
But one does indeed also need to be very careful about politicising a post-disaster situation. As it is, disasters affect different groups in very different ways, and can deepen existing divides or inequalities. Moreover, the response to a disaster by a government might be uneven, or be perceived as uneven, by affected groups. Governments often get criticised for inadequate or slow reactions. A post-disaster situation is understandably fraught with intense emotions, great need, and can easily be a destabilising factor.
Would the changes promoted by this approach take place at the level of the individual, community or country/government/systemic?
There is a need for a fairly broad, systemic change, or at least willingness to accept change. Peace overtures do need to involve the core protagonists, which often are central governments and a strong rebel force. But along the way, it is clear that community and individual relations are important as well. These might not be critical right away, but changes in attitude, outlook and behaviour need to permeate the societies in question. Often, this is a slow and difficult process that needs to be carried on long after a disaster has taken place, and perhaps even long after physical rebuilding is complete.
The 2007 report offers case studies from Aceh, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. Of these, why did only the first lead to a successful use of ‘disaster diplomacy’?
The protagonists in Aceh were highly receptive and ready for peacemaking, given that the struggle for Aceh’s independence from Indonesia had carried on for decades, with neither side having a reasonable prospect of winning, or winning decisively. GAM, the pro-independence rebels, had suffered military setbacks prior to the tsunami. The Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, elected only a few months before the disaster, had pledged in his campaign that he would seek peace in Aceh. Perhaps the fact that he had not been entrenched in office reinforced his interest in scoring an important moral and political victory. He and his vice-president, Yusuf Kalla, worked very hard to convince both military and political leaders in Jakarta that the conflict needed to be resolved. Thus, there was readiness on both sides to negotiate.
Aceh, previously kept under martial law, was suddenly opened up to the world by the influx of foreign military and aid workers, and intense media interest. This increased pressure on both sides not to be seen as endangering rebuilding assistance through continued conflict. Hardliners were also kept at bay – unlike the situation in Sri Lanka, where important constituencies had not been included in a previous ceasefire agreement, and thus felt they had every reason to torpedo peacemaking attempts.
In both Aceh and Sri Lanka, both sides to the conflict suffered greatly due to the tsunami, and there was a certain commonality of interest, though popular goodwill among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka did not carry through onto the level of ‘high politics’. In the case of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, by far the most damage was sustained on the Pakistani side, with comparatively minor impacts on the Indian side. This clearly limited the degree to which there was any sense of shared need and interests, and international aid efforts took place exclusively in the Pakistani part of Kashmir, with India barring outside help on its side. Thus, post-disaster goodwill was very much limited to small, symbolic efforts that could not overcome the decades of intense rivalry and adversity between the two countries.
For what types of situation is this approach best suited? Can such an optimal climate be actively created or fostered?
The evidence to date suggests that there are limits to the ability to create the ‘right’ type of climate for post-disaster peacemaking efforts. Donor countries or international agencies clearly have a role to play, and do have a degree of influence. But it can be dangerous to overstate this influence. In fact, the Sri Lankan experience suggests that there are clear limits. Some of the key protagonists there were not willing to let economic inducements compel a negotiated end to the conflict. Some of the actors actively torpedoed Western donor efforts. To a large extent, the politics of how reconstruction aid was to be governed ended up reinforcing the conflict dynamics rather than overcoming them. Also, the Sri Lankan government had access to alternative foreign aid sources – China, Pakistan – that allowed it to defy the wishes of Western donors and their conditionalities.
In Sri Lanka, international involvement was increasingly regarded with intense suspicion. This affected both the conventional conflict resolution efforts by Norway – previously seen as an honest broker between the government and the Tamil Tigers, but increasingly depicted as having a pro-Tigers agenda – and the activities of many aid groups that were working in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, some of them also accused of having hidden and sinister agendas. What this suggests is not that a conducive climate cannot be fostered, but that it is very, very difficult to do so.
Your 2007 report came out prior to the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in Burma. How were these issues dealt with in that situation?
In the aftermath of Nargis, the Burmese military regime was very intent on not allowing an international aid presence, and one can argue that this was one reason why the cyclone did not trigger any transformative dynamic in the country. After the tsunami, the Indonesian military leadership had also wanted to keep Aceh closed to foreign aid, but was overruled by the political leadership. Had Aceh been kept off limits, it is possible that the conflict there might still be going on. Another difference between Burma and Aceh, however, is that in Aceh the tsunami hit exactly where the conflict was taking place. In Burma, the cyclone did not affect the areas to the north that have, over a number of decades, been the scene of conflict between the central government and various minorities.
On a related note, what can be said about the potential for ‘disaster diplomacy’ in a dictatorial or autocratic situation?
It’s not always clear what the outcome might be. The Burmese example suggests that a dictatorial or autocratic regime might well be able to keep tight control over a post-disaster situation, and thus prevent any sort of transformational political event and dynamic that could alter the nature of governance in the affected country.
On the other hand, there is the experience in the former East Pakistan/Bangladesh. In August 1970, floods claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The military regime in distant Islamabad was seen as indifferent to mass suffering, and even accused of intentionally delaying aid shipments. This helped to fuel demands for political autonomy. When the military government responded with increased repression, war eventually ensued that led to Bangladesh’s independence in December 1971. This is obviously not an example of disaster diplomacy. But the lesson is that non-democratic regimes can be negatively affected by post-disaster dynamics, if they are seen as unresponsive or incompetent.
Bringing peace to any situation typically requires careful, plodding work – the building of confidence. How does this fit with the frantic situation that typically characterises a post-disaster scenario?
Disaster diplomacy only comes into play in somewhat unusual circumstances and, again, only offers a fleeting opportunity. In that sense, it is in keeping with the frantic, shifting nature of a situation in the aftermath of an extreme event. The key question is how governments and other actors respond to this spark of an opportunity – whether they use the moment to initiate a process that itself will play out in a much more plodding manner, will require political will and staying power, and is indeed very different in nature than the emergency efforts that come right after a disaster happens.
|Art: Venantius J Pinto|
If a peacemaking dynamic unfolds, it is likely to do so away from the limelight. In Aceh, for instance, international media attention was focused on rebuilding efforts for weeks and months. But the peace negotiations that were kicked off after the tsunami were shielded from media scrutiny, because they were held in Finland. This suggests that the commonality between a post-disaster situation and peace negotiations is largely limited to a brief span of time. The case of India-Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake presents an opposite example. In that situation, there was too much public grandstanding between the two neighbours – and too little quiet, serious diplomacy
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