8 January 2005

Am I my brother's account keeper?

By Marguerite Finn

"Loving our neighbours includes loving those in distant lands requiring our practical help"
(Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich)

What was it about the Tsunami disaster that prompted us to respond so quickly and generously? The time of the year, perhaps - or the fact that many of us are deeply troubled by the appalling situation in Iraq - an avoidable disaster which we failed to prevent? Maybe it was the dawning realisation that we all live a precarious existence on the surface of a volatile planet and we do not control the forces of Nature? If we accept that, then we have no need to live in fear of phantom 'enemies' and the money in the global war chests could be diverted to rebuilding devastated homes and cities.

Each New Year we are presented with an opportunity to clean up the mess from previous years and start again with a clean slate. This is both a strength and a weakness. If the latest disaster pushes earlier 'on-going' disasters to the back of our consciousness, that is a grave weakness. We live in an age of unprecedented global communication. At the press of a button we can have instant access to news from around the world. We are horrified and saddened at the plight of victims of death and destruction. We are moved to help. But we don't follow it up. New events occur, the media focus moves on and we forget to wonder what is happening today in Bam, or Bangladesh, Falluja or Haiti. I often find myself wondering what ever happened to the hundreds of people last seen clinging to trees and roof-tops to escape the floods in Bangladesh (2004), the 14 million Chinese made homeless when the Yangtze River flooded its banks (1998), the Iranians digging frantically in the dusty debris of the ancient city of Bam (2003) or the Palestinian families in Gaza whose homes had just been bulldozed (2004/5).

It is not compassion that is missing - it is accountability.

What would happen if the media reported on the progress of cleaning-up and rebuilding disaster areas after, say, two years and again after ten years? Would this not ensure that all agencies involved from Governments down were accountable for their actions? With the eyes of the world focussed on them it would be difficult for donor countries to renege on their pledges and for the recipient countries to waste or mismanage the resources given to them. Surely there is scope here for positive 'good news' stories - and if not, why not?

One particular disaster, which the world seems to have forgotten is Bhopal. Here is a twenty-year old mess crying out to be cleaned up - for which nobody wants to be accountable. In December 1984, forty tons of lethal gases leaked from Union Carbide Corporation's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. It was the worst chemical disaster in history. Over 8,000 people died in three days from direct exposure to the gases. The Company refused to provide full information regarding the nature of the poisoning, which meant that doctors were unable properly to treat the victims. To this day survivors have been unable to obtain information on the composition of the leaked gases and their effect on the body. Union Carbide abandoned the factory, leaving behind large quantities of dangerous poisons, which continue to contaminate the water supply and affect the local population. A third generation of victims is now emerging. These are children born to parents born after the gas leak. They are suffering from TB, lung fibrosis, cancers and chromosomal aberrations. Dow Chemical Corporation bought Union Carbide in 1999, but refuses to accept any responsibility for the Bhopal disaster - even when Greenpeace found severe contamination of land and water supplies due to the continued release of chemicals from the toxic wastes that remain on site.

Bhopal cannot start 2005 with a clean slate - but neither can the Dow Chemical Corporation, which still owes the people of Bhopal a clean environment and the removal of the festering remains of the chemical factory. Here in Norfolk we agonise about dogs fouling pavements and public places. How can we do that while allowing the people of Bhopal to be born, live and die on contaminated land, in total breach of their human rights ? Further information can be found on the Greenpeace USA website or at http://www.bhopal.org/.

My thanks to Greenpeace International for their excellent report on Corporate Crimes (June 2002).