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Capitalize on Disasters to Make Peace, Say Researchers

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO - A globally minded think tank is calling on governments and disaster relief organizations to work for peace when disaster strikes in conflict zones.

"If traditional diplomacy is unable to end a conflict then we have to look at different ways," said Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Washington, DC-based Worldwatch Institute, which this week issued a 57-page report titled "Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace." 0615 01

"Disasters create a moment when opposing sides have a common goal of recovering," Renner said. "Seizing on that is something that could make a really big difference."

The Worldwatch report examines the effect of the 2004 tsunami on war-torn Sri Lanka and Indonesia's Aceh province, where separatist rebels had battled government troops for decades. The organization also looked at fallout from 2005's 7.6 magnitude earthquake centered in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which left more than 70,000 people dead.

Among the three cases, Worldwatch said, only the international response to the tsunami in Aceh "served as a catalyzing shock that cemented the collective determination to make peace."

After the tsunami killed 167,000 Achenese and left half a million homeless, several international aid donors, including the governments of Germany and Japan, made it clear that they expected progress on settling the conflict so that reconstruction could proceed unimpeded, though they stopped short of conditioning aid directly on resolving the conflict.

With the eyes of the world trained on Aceh, Worldwatch noted, both the government and rebels were anxious to seize the moral high ground.

In January 2005 -- just one month after the tsunami -- peace talks began in Helsinki, mediated by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. By August, a peace agreement had been signed.

"Before the tsunami there was martial law," Renner said, "but negotiations quickly started to take place and led to a successful agreement."

Matt Easton, a senior researcher at Human Rights First,. arrived in Aceh three weeks after the tsunami.

"The most important factor for peace was probably access to the area by foreigners," said Easton.

"Aceh was really a closed province before the tsunami hit, but afterwards it was just crawling with aid groups of every kind -- from Scientologists to Sikhs. That's really important to human rights because it allows people who are having problems to come forward to complain to a neutral party."

Sometimes, however, foreign intervention after disasters can be counter-productive. Two and a half years after Sri Lanka was hit by the 2004 tsunami, fighting continues unabated.

Rather than capitalizing on the increased foreign attention to make peace, the Sinhalese government in Colombo and the Tamil rebels each tried to use disaster relief to gain legitimacy for their cause. These struggles "reinforced the island's divides and contributed to renewed warfare," the Worldwatch report said.


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In the last year alone, violence has killed an estimated 4,500 Sri Lankans.

Peace and human rights groups have responded positively to the Worldwatch report.

"It's a worthy effort," said Michael Breen of the group Nonviolence International. "Given how small the world is getting, it's certainly appropriate."

But Breen cautioned that more interventionist aid may not be the best idea in every case. He argued there should still be a place for groups like the Red Cross, which specifically eschew politics in their efforts to meet human needs.

"Every disaster is different. What we need is a disaster relief infrastructure that is multifaceted and a little bit like our immune system, where we can target the right kind of intervention and the right kind of disaster relief approaches for that specific conflict," he said.

"Some are medically oriented; some focus on food; some are Christian or Muslim; and in the future we may have grandmothers or women's intervention or disaster relief groups, and that will be a good thing," Breen added.

Perhaps most important, Breen said, is that international governments should try to avoid feeding into conflicts in the first place.

Every year, global arms manufacturers do an estimated $1.2 trillion worth of business. The U.S. government, and other leading world powers, should "first, do no harm," he said.

And while Breen chastises governments for providing the fuel for conflict, Worldwatch warns that human activity is also fueling natural disasters.

Recorded disasters nearly doubled between 1987 and 2006, and the number of people affected by these disasters increased more than 10 percent, the group's report says.

Key reasons for the rise in the number and impact of disasters include climate change, rising population, and poverty, according to the report.

"You can't talk about long-term security without recognizing the growing threat of disasters," said Renner, one of the report's co-authors. "We play a role in worsening natural hazards and their effects -- through population growth, climate change, and environmental degradation."

An average of 348 disasters -- nearly one per day -- has been recorded each year over the past decade, with 1 billion people affected or injured by floods alone.

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