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Doug Sarro Headshot

Pakistan Flood Victims Deserve Better

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The floods that have swept northwest Pakistan have caused more damage than both this year's earthquake in Haiti and the South Asian tsunami of 2005. Yet aid for Pakistan, both from individuals and from foreign governments, has amounted to only a fraction of that pledged for these two earlier disasters.

Former Chilean diplomat Jorge Heine believes the classified documents released earlier this month by WikiLeaks have chilled donor responses to the flood. He's likely right -- after all, why send money to a country whose government is covertly backing Afghan insurgents and international terrorists?

But it is wrong to blame Pakistani flood victims for their government's failures, especially since those living in the flood-affected region have been paying the price for their government's ineptitude for years. In June, Amnesty International reported that nearly four million people in northwest Pakistan live in a "rights free zone," without any access to protection or basic services from their government and, therefore, living under de facto Taliban rule.

In a bid to boost Pakistan aid, Richard Holbrooke has argued that flood assistance will advance Western security interests by improving Pakistani civilians' views on the West.

This is likely true, but aid won't address the real security threats in Pakistan: the Haqqani network and its supporters in Pakistan's intelligence community. It won't persuade Haqqani insurgents and their allies in the Pakistan Taliban to lay down their arms, and it won't change the Pakistan government's belief that dealing with insurgents will buy it influence over a post-NATO Afghan government.

But at the end of the day, this ought to be irrelevant. Emergency aid should be about helping people in dire need, not about looking after our own security interests.

And this need is not only dire, it is urgent. With displaced persons left without access to food or drinkable water, it comes as little surprise that doctors on the ground have already found signs of a cholera outbreak. The flooding has also demolished natural gas lines throughout the country, leaving nearby cities without much of their daily energy supply. Countless schools and hospitals have also been destroyed -- critical infrastructure that will need to be rebuilt to avert a generation-long health and education crisis.

Disasters left unchecked beget other disasters, and clearly, Pakistan is no exception.

While addressing Pakistan's immediate and long-term needs must be our first priority, we also need to look toward future disasters and how we will address the needs of victims.

We've built an incredible infrastructure of laws and rights to protect people who have to cross state boundaries for fear of their lives -- under international refugee law, even those with seemingly spurious claims to persecution have the right to safe accommodation while their claims are adjudicated.

But people who flee from a conflict or disaster, but not their country -- as in Pakistan's case -- have few rights to rely on. These "internally displaced persons" are considered, first and foremost, the responsibility of their own government, even if that government, like Pakistan's, is woefully dysfunctional and utterly incapable of keeping them safe.

Beyond that, all they can count on is the charity of other governments, international organizations, and individual donors whose responses to different emergencies can vary wildly.

To address this problem, we need to strengthen the often-ignored "guiding principles" that outline the world's responsibilities to displaced persons and boost the capacity of the myriad UN agencies tasked with aiding them so that the victims of future disasters can rely on a consistent, predictable response to their plight from the international community.

Pakistan is a moral test case for the world -- do we believe that all people forced out of their homes because of conflict or natural disaster have the same rights no matter where they are from, or don't we?

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