Sunday, August 23, 2009

UN sends team to [Taiwan]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said today that the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) would be sending a team within a week to help with reconstruction in the wake of Typhoon Morakot. Great! Finally, the UN admits to the existence of Taiwan and will even be sending experts, albeit belatedly, to help Taiwanese in the south. This, we are told, will be the first time the UN sends a humanitarian delegation (of three) to Taiwan since the 921 Earthquake.

But wait, keep that outburst of optimism under your hat for a minute. Here’s why: On Aug. 12, the UN News Center filed the following story about Typhoon Morakot:

Senior UN official calls for urgent measures to mitigate impact of landslides

Action must be taken to mitigate the impact of landslides such as those triggered recently in parts of East Asia by Typhoon Morakot, which has reportedly buried entire villages and killed scores of people, a senior United Nations official working on disaster risk reduction stressed today.

“As this week’s tragic events in East Asia show once again, people living on unstable slopes and steep terrains are particularly at risk from landslides in the wake of torrential rain and flooding,” said Margareta Wahlström, who heads the UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

“While landslides are hard to predict, people living in landslide-prone areas can be alerted in advance if there are monitoring and warning systems in place to measure rainfalls and soil conditions,” she added.

Ms. Wahlström underlined the urgency of these measures by pointing to population growth and the urbanization of steep hillsides, along with the predictions by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of more intense rainfalls in the future, leading to increased instability of slopes and making more people vulnerable to landslides.

She also highlighted the case of Hong Kong, where a ‘Slope Safety System’ introduced in the mid-1970s has resulted in a 50 per cent fall in casualty rates from landslides since 1977, and is targeting a further reduction — to 75 per cent — by 2010.

In addition, an early warning system implemented in Costa Rica, which trained some 200 people in disaster preparedness and 30 people as radio operators, saw a dramatic improvement in the response to a second landslide in nine months, saving hundreds of lives.

“Landslides are a growing problem in many countries, but, as these examples show, people living in landslide-prone areas can be better protected,” said Ms. Wahlström, who is also Assistant-Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.

OK. There you have it. All 297 words about Morakot. Not a single mention of Taiwan. Instead, what we have are “tragic events in East Asia.” About 500 people died in Taiwan, and yet in its call for action, the UN writes instead about Hong Kong — and Costa Rica, for crying out loud! OCHA’s Situation Report #1 on Typhoon Morakot, dated Aug. 19, meanwhile, opens with the sentence “On 7 August 2009, landfall resulting from Typhoon Morakot hit the south-east coast of mainland China and the island of Taiwan,” before embarking on a long description of the damage in China. Throughout the report, the UN refers to “the battered island of Taiwan” and relies extensively on Xinhua news agency, a Chinese state-sponsored and controlled organ, for its information (no agency or news outlet in Taiwan is mentioned). The “Funding” section of the report briefly mentions that 59 countries have offered assistance and that Japan has pledged US$1 million. But the section mainly consists of a detailed description of financial help from China, which actually reads as if it had been drafted by a seasoned propagandist in Beijing:

On 19 August, Xinhua news agency reported that organizations and individuals in the mainland have donated about CNY 176 million (USD 26 million) to the typhoon battered island for disaster relief. The mainland had also donated CNY 25 million (USD 3.6 million) worth of relief materials to the island, including prefabricated houses, sleeping bags, blankets and sterilizers … On 18 August, the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (SAR) government and Macao SAR government have also sent TWD 210 million (USD 6.3 million) and TWD 40 million (USD 1.2 million) respectively … Donations are also being channeled through the TRCO. The Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) headquarters issued CNY 15 million (US$ 2.1 million) to support the TRCO in providing relief assistance to communities. Guangdong, Shanghai and Fujian branches of the RCSC further supplemented their headquarters’ support with CNY 1 million (US$ 146,150) each to TRCO for relief efforts. IFRC in New York has channeled private donations worth US$ 500,000 to the TRCO as well.

All of which overemphasizes the role China is playing in reconstruction while giving the impression that Taiwan is part of China. Why the focus on the type of aid provided by China? Why not a similarly detailed account of US assistance?

Given China’s weight at the UN, added to the world body’s spinelessness, it’ll be interesting to see how the UN team’s visit will be characterized (quite expectedly as UN assistance to China). We can also expect that the officials will have to stop in China first before crossing the strait to Taiwan. Now, in light of the UN’s long snub of Taiwanese identity, what welcome should be reserved those “experts” when they arrive in Taiwan — unbridled gratitude, or eggs?

In all fairness to MOFA (and the UN), a well-placed source informs me that the visit by UN experts is actually a sign that the ministry is making inroads at the UN, and that the world body’s omission of the name Taiwan is the result of the balancing act it must do to secure its interests and those of Taiwan. According to the source, many prestigious health professionals organizations rallied in Taiwan’s favor during the WHO campaign (in which our scapegoat, Andrew Hsia, allegedly played a key role), which effectively forced Beijing’s hand. The UN group, which will be in Taiwan to assess what needs to be done for reconstruction and to prevent future catastrophes like this from recurring, could “kick the ass” of legislators who had blocked a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-initiated bill that was addressing the issue of mismanagement of mountainous areas and the environment in general, the source said. The prestige conferred by their role in OCHA could very well compel the central government, whose image has suffered tremendously as a result of its poor handling of Morakot, to revisit the recommendations made by the DPP and act accordingly. Lets see how this plays out, and if the recommendations made by the UN trio are adopted by the central government. It would be no small irony if the UN recommendations turned out to be similar to those made by the DPP...


Άλισον said...

I am sure many UN experts are willing to help TW despite any delay by possible UN policy guidelines. We welcome them!

Maintaining private contacts between UN and Taiwan's experts are just as important as official governmental to UN and its sub-organizational contacts.

Similar to what I said before as in the case of the WHA-WHO:

"Taiwan should maintain private contacts with medical professionals, keeping citizens informed on health issues through medical blogs instead of waiting for epidemic alerts from the WHO."

Greg said...

[...]could “kick the ass” of legislators [...]

Too bad they won't....

And it's just so disappointing how the Secretary General dislikes Taiwan. I expected much more from a "fellow" Asian from South Korea..... But nooooo....

But hope for the best and keep the gunpowder dry...

Harry Haller said...

A pipe dream, maybe: we should lobby for our countries to recognise Taiwan. And not on Taiwan-related blogs, that would be like preaching to the converted. The name 'Taiwan' has appeared on many media outlet recently, and not in all cases those articles were written with 'Taiwan as a rebel Chinese province' in mind. If we care about TW, this might be the right moment to do something about the international status of 'Ilha Formosa'.