Although the Haitian and Libyan crises were very different, both episodes highlighted a fundamental challenge to the European Union in the humanitarian sphere. The union's members and the European Commission have played a central role in building the international humanitarian system. Yet while a key tenet of humanitarian assistance is that it should be apolitical, the EU is not a politically neutral entity like the U.N. Refugee Agency.
The Politics of Global Disaster Response
Natural disasters have long been seen as opportunities for political outreach and diplomatic reconciliation. For the European Union after the Lisbon Treaty, that raises questions about what kind of humanitarian actor it wishes to be. However, the actual track record of "disaster diplomacy" is far from conclusive. And a return to humanitarian principles could be the cure for a global disaster-response system plagued by the politicization of relief.
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On Dec. 26, 2004, a massive earthquake shook Aceh, Indonesia, sending tsunamis racing across the Indian Ocean. Many of the countries struck by the destructive waves were embroiled in conflict at the time. Many wondered whether the tsunami disaster would affect the conflicts, potentially bringing peace. Such "disaster diplomacy" had already been investigated for dozens of case studies concerning different disasters around the world. Few successes had been documented. Would the 2004 tsunamis prove different?
Over the past several decades, responses to major disasters have become an important responsibility of the international community. In that time, the global disaster-response system has evolved to cope with the increased human and material consequences of geophysical events. Nevertheless, shortcomings of the current system have become increasingly apparent and must be addressed in order to strengthen it.