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U.S. Food Drops "Tragic Mistake" Says Senior UN Official

by Thalif Deen

Children confusing yellow food packets with yellow "bomblets"
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- A senior UN human rights official is criticizing the U.S. decision to simultaneously bombard Afghanistan with bombs and food.

Jean Ziegler of Switzerland, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, terms the decision a "tragic mistake" and is derisive in describing it.

"One bomb, one bread, one bomb, one bread," he says of the U.S. military-cum- humanitarian operation under way in Afghanistan.

The food is delivered in aerodynamic packages that are yellow -- the same color as deadly cluster bombs that have descended like snowflakes over the Afghan landscape, Ziegler says. Making matters worse, much of the food may have landed in minefields, threatening the lives of those who venture to gather them up.

"This has to stop," says Ziegler.

Ziegler adds that the U.S. military food drops violate most UN criteria for humanitarian actions.

These must be "neutral, impartial and inspired by humanitarian concerns," he says. Otherwise, relief workers would be vulnerable to suspicion of being partisans. Such suspicion resulted in the deaths of UN relief workers in East Timor and Burundi, he adds.

The Pentagon announced last week it would change the color of the food packages for fear that Afghan men, women and children may not be able to tell them apart from yellow canisters of unexploded ordnance.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "It is unfortunate that the cluster bombs -- the unexploded ones -- are the same color as the food packets."

"Unfortunately, they get used to running to yellow," Myers said of the Afghan population. He admitted he did not know how long it would take to change the color of the food packages.

The 37,000 individually wrapped food packages are emblazoned with the stars-and-stripes U.S. emblem. They are being unloaded on Afghanistan even as U.S. combat aircraft sustain their bombing raids on a country ravaged by more than two decades of military conflict.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic language television network, also has made much of the bombs-and-bread strategy, noting that from the outset, it has been met with skepticism in the Arab world.

"Were the food packages meant to feed the children, while the cruise missiles and cluster bombs were aimed at killing their fathers?" Executive Editor Sami Haddad asked.

On Nov. 6, a UN spokesman told a news briefing on Afghanistan that in the village of Qala Shaker -- where the use of cluster bombs was first confirmed -- two children picked up a "bomblet" and were seriously injured when it exploded.

The UN's Mine Action Center in the city of Herat has said that many "bomblets" -- sub-munitions carried within each cluster bomb -- littered several villages and prevented residents from leaving their homes.

According to the United Nations, there are as many as 200 "bomblets" in each cluster bomb. The Center said that it urgently requires information about the types of cluster munitions used so that it can get people to destroy the devices.

The Center has advised civilians not to touch any unfamiliar objects and, if possible, to inform the nearest anti-mine personnel so that the sites can be marked.

Ziegler, meanwhile, says the air strikes must stop at the earliest possible moment in order to get food to the seven million people in Afghanistan who need it most.

"Even though the Taliban behaved scandalously, and a small percentage of the food packages might actually feed people, the damage done by the simultaneous food and bomb drops (is) too great for it to continue," he says.

The U.S. food drops also have been criticised by a leading relief organization, the Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors without Borders.

Morten Rostrup, the group's president, says "the food drops are a superficial and misleading gesture," adding: "It is extremely unlikely that these few items of assistance reach the poorest and most vulnerable Afghans."

"Our experience in delivering humanitarian aid throughout the world in armed conflicts for more than 30 years has taught us that untargeted and unmonitored relief, particularly food aid, rarely reaches those who need it most," says Rostrup.

"Decisions on humanitarian intervention should be based on needs alone, independent of military or political objectives. Otherwise, those Afghans in greatest need of food and medical assistance will go without," he adds.

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Albion Monitor November 12, 2001 (

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