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Rights expert rethinks relief at Korean forum

A British human rights expert has argued for a broader approach to disaster relief at a conference in Korea.

Dr. Darren O’Byrne, principal lecturer in sociology and human rights at London’s Roehampton University, asked: “Why are we so quick to concern ourselves with the victims of ‘natural’ disasters and not with those who suffer at the hands of repressive regimes?” in a paper presented to an international forum in Seoul this week.

He challenged the global community’s selective vision for tackling only non-political aid.
Dr. Darren O’Byrne (British Council Korea)
Dr. Darren O’Byrne (British Council Korea)

In his paper, O’Byrne said sympathy-rousing media and charity campaigns had sparked “staggering” global responses to natural disasters ― such as $3 billion in worldwide pledges for the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

But he added that “while the charity itself is to be applauded and is necessary” this “empathy-as-campaign strategy” diverted attention from deeper political and economic issues possibly enforcing unequal and unjust systems.

“When debating disaster prevention, emergency management and relief, we must take into consideration more than just the immediate material consequences, but also the broader socio-economic and political context,” he argued.

He said the amount of disaster relief given seemed “disproportionate to the responses generated by massive crimes against humanity, atrocities committed by states and human rights violations worldwide.”

He pointed to cases such as genocides in Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge saying that while the media had highlighted the public to such atrocities, aid responses had been muted.

The human rights expert, who gives talks for Amnesty International in the U.K. as well as teaching on Rohehampton’s MA programs in Human Rights, cited the relief response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami along with other recent natural disasters in his presentation to the forum.

“The apparent tidal wave of globalized empathy that has been generated by the famines in Ethiopia, the Indian Ocean tsunami or the crisis in Japan seems woefully lacking in any equivalent condemnation of the global capitalist system which relies upon and thus cheerfully reproduces vast inequalities in access to resources and life-chances,” he said.

While understandable, the public response to tragedy was rarely accompanied by a deep understanding of the causes the disasters, or of socio-economic factors.

“Individuals from across the world are invited to unite in common grief but rarely with any reference to the ugly world of politics, to the unequal global distribution of resources or to the dynamics of power,” he added.

Rather than just giving, people should ask: “Who suffers most from such disasters, whether natural or otherwise? Who benefits from them? Who is responsible for them or their consequences, whether directly or via the use or misuse of their authority?”

The International Forum on Disaster Relief, Civil Society and Global Solidarity was organized by the Korea Disaster Relief Association. It was held at the Korea Press Center on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss disaster relief in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

By Kirsty Taylor (
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Korea Herald daum