U.S. Officials Speak at Kobe Conference

Mark Lagon
Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Department of State

World Conference on Disaster Reduction
Kobe, Japan
January 19, 2005

LAGON: I'm Mark Lagon. I'm the deputy head of delegation for the United States at the conference. I'm an official at the State Department, responsible for international organization affairs - United Nations' matters. Our head of delegation, who is the United States' Ambassador to Japan, one of the most substantial statesmen in the United States - he has been the majority leader of our Senate, had been chief of staff to President Reagan - will be coming and making an intervention, both at the tsunami special session tomorrow, and making the general statement of the United States tomorrow.

I'm here to talk about some of the priorities of the United States at this conference, what we're trying to work in partnership with other nations here to achieve. Joining me up here are two of my colleagues, representative of the breadth and depth of our delegation. Len Rogers is a deputy assistant administrator of the Agency for International Development, our development assistance agency in the United States, and Jim Whitcomb is with the National Science Foundation. He is a specialist. He knows in great depth about the questions of seismology, dealing with earthquakes. One of those issues is being brought here to the fore, in the discussion of disaster-reduction and early warning.

Anyway, let me tell you a little bit about what the United States hopes to work with other nations here to do, and I think we're succeeding. We've been very encouraged by what's occurred so far, in two days of this world conference. We think that there is an opportunity, in which the terrible human suffering of those in the Indian Ocean area from the tsunami, can help galvanize an effort in the world to not only engage in early warning for natural disasters, but a culture of preparedness, and we hope that we can work together in this conference to do so.

There are two things that we're quite focused on. One is to try and use an existing multilateral framework for global earth observations to build up the capacity for an early-warning system - not just for the Indian Ocean, but frankly, globally - in which compatible data sharing can occur, for watching out for natural disasters - not just tsunamis, but other hazards as well because we believe in an 'all hazards' approach.

The other thing that we really want to emphasize - and a lot of the other partners who we're working with here agree - is that, in a way, the hard science of detecting a natural disaster is easier and perhaps even less expensive or less difficult than an even more substantial part - the social part. I like to say that what we're trying to emphasize here at the conference is three 'C's: Communications, Communities - reaching communities in various countries so their awareness is raised about natural disasters and hazards, so that their sensitivity to being prepared is heightened; and the third 'C' is Cultures, to be cognizant of particular cultures and cultural circumstances, so that they are prepared to deal with situations in particular areas in a fitting way, and if you're trying to communicate with them, that you do so in a way that is appropriate to a particular cultural context. That's something we're trying to emphasize here in our work.

So these are our themes to propose that there be a focus, for tsunami early warning and more broad early warning, on the global earth observation system of systems. And we think that a really important meeting to occur is the Third Summit on Earth Observation, a ministerial meeting to take place Feb. 16 in Brussels, for developing a platform for early warning. Then secondly, we're really emphasizing this other side, besides hard science, the communication with people, the reaching of communities and a sense for particular cultures, for getting information out.

Anyway, I'd like to elaborate on some of these themes, but perhaps we'd better just move to questions, and I'll address some of these priorities as you ask questions. I'd rather open it up to you. If you'd identify what media organization you're with, that would be helpful to me.

QUESTION: (inaudible) with the Associated Press. The U.N. seems to be very interested in having a unified, coordinated approach to this, and seems to feel that it is the U.N. agencies and organizations that have the expertise and experience in dealing with these types of early warning networks. I was wondering, what is your vision? Is it regional groups that are interlocked one-to-one, or do you see like a series of different networks that cooperate among one another, or do you see one over-riding organization that oversees an entire global system?

LAGON: Well, we'd like it to be as integrated as possible. I think that the most practical way for a global reach system to occur is for there to be sets of regional ones that communicate with each other with compatible data. The U.N. has a vital role to play, and I must say, in emphasizing this global earth observation approach, it is UNESCO and the work of the Inter-Governmental Oceanic Commission, that we want to build on. The existing warning system for the Pacific is UNESCO-based, and we'd like to build on that.

QUESTION: I'm Kevin Kim from the BBC. I was wondering whether the events in the Indian Ocean have changed the determination of the United States policy of helping implement early warning systems around the world, and if there were any changes of position and what kind of role the United States could play in the future?

LAGON: Well, the United States has actually a pretty substantial record in working on humanitarian issues, and this is about the emphasis one places on preventive action - not only on the relief that follows a terrible disaster. But the United States has been engaged in a process with the, you know, host country and the host organization from the U.N. for creating this conference for some time. I have been personally involved in, you know, our work moving towards this conference, long before the disaster of the tsunami hit. Truth be told, however, the tsunami has heightened attention on this. The President of the United States is personally engaged in discussing with his science advisors and his international affairs advisors how we can help build this tsunami early warning system, and it has raised the profile of this issue, so that we are all the more determined to work on risk-reduction in general, and hopefully, you know, to move beyond only tsunamis, beyond only the Indian Ocean, beyond only early warning, to the whole broad array of global concerns outreach to people that are involved in a culture of risk-reduction.

QUESTION: Charles (inaudible) of the Associated Press. The U.S. delegation has sought, as far as I understand, to eliminate all six references to climate change in the outcome document - climate change as a cause for potential natural disasters. Can you explain why that is and whether the U.S. government does not believe that climate change will have the potential to cause natural disasters?

LAGON: I'd be happy to address that. Variability of climate is quite relevant to natural disasters. Clearly talking about climate is pertinent here, but it's well known that there are controversies about the issue of climate change, about the Kyoto Protocol, in other venues of the U.N.. It's our desire that this controversy not distract this conference. And there are other nations who are raising this question, too. In the negotiations in the main committee about the outcome documents, the United States is by no means the only or principal voice asking the question about references to climate change. There are other venues and other organizations in the U.N. that grapple with this. Our only suggestion is: let's not let something - which has been a legitimate, serious, substantive debate about how to grapple best with climate change - to skew a very important conference. But matters of climate and environment are certainly pertinent to the kinds of hazards that exist today, and the United States would not deny that.

QUESTION: You spoke of enhanced interest in the United States because of events in the Indian Ocean, and I was wondering, has this changed the importance of the role that the United States wishes to take in the future, in confronting future problems?

LAGON: Well, I think the United States is going to be all the more determined to work on the earth observation system for a broad array of early warning needs. The United States has been generous and will be generous in contributing not only resources but technology and know-how to that effort. The other thing that I think the United States will do is to work on the question that your colleague from AP originally raised, and it has to do with coordination of different U.N. entities. The United States is sometimes portrayed as unilateralist with respect to the U.N.. The U.S. policy is really to try and get the U.N. to live up to its original intentions, to live up to its potential. That's what the United States is trying to achieve. And I think that we've seen, after the tsunami, the need for different parts of the U.N. - whether they be the ISDR, UNESCO, UNDP, the World Meteorological Organization - to work together in a more effective coordinated fashion, and I think the United States will rededicate itself to help work to urge the U.N. to coordinate itself. This morning, I had breakfast with Under Secretary General Jan Egeland, with my colleague Len Rogers here. It was a breakfast scheduled since before the tsunami about the future of the ISDR. The United States was already discussing how to get the U.N. agencies to coordinate themselves. Now it's all the more urgent to do so.

QUESTION: Steve Herman from Voice of America. If I could just follow up on what Charlie asked about there. Can you confirm that there were six references to climate change that the United States has objected to? And you mentioned also that there are others concerned about not having that language in there. Could you mention any other countries or organizations that are allied with the U.S. on that?

LAGON: I don't know if the number is precisely six, but it is several. There are multiple references in the main committee where the drafting has occurred. There was a discussion of taking some stakeholders, a rather large number of countries who are interested in the climate change issue - to move aside and sort of separate out a discussion on that so that they could help develop a compromise and then come into the larger drafting process. But there are other nations - as I recall from sitting in on the session earlier today, for instance two such nations, rather different that raised concerns about this were both Iran and Australia, among others besides the United States.

Other questions? One thing that I wanted to emphasize, if I may: This matter of communicating to people about the need to prepare for risk-reduction and to reach people has a lot to do with governance - good governance. The President of the United States has emphasized, as the central theme of his foreign policy, the promotion of democracy and openness. The Millennium Challenge Account is based in large part upon the idea that nations that have ruled justly, that have good governance, should be eligible for a special new category of development assistance. Good governance and democracy and transparency are relevant here, to risk-reduction. The responsibility of governments to communicate to their people about dangers, to engage civil society in a dialogue, to share information - those are essential to building risk-reduction. The kind of work that Len is involved in at the Agency for International Development is very pertinent to that democratic governance. AID, the Agency for International Development, will play a leading role in that side of the work of early warning. It's not the hard science that may be the hard part. Len, would you like to say a word on this territory?

ROGERS: Sure, we see public education, training of local officials, as both critical to effective response. There's a story in this tsunami about the people in the Pacific station recognizing that as a consequence of this major earthquake that there was going to be a big tsunami, but there was no real mechanism for warning, and there was no mechanism for communicating to the people, and the people and the communities themselves were not trained in how to respond, and so the technical knowledge of what the consequences of this big earthquake were going to be was lost. And so we do see public education and training of local communities as critical to successful early warning, and we do intend to play a major role. As Mark said, the tsunami has galvanized our commitment and so I think we will play that role. There are important organizations here in Asia that can play a regional role. The Asia Disaster Response Center here in Kobe is a critical organization with an outstanding training facility, and we look forward to working with them. The Asia Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok is also a regional organization that we work well with. So we see fostering regional cooperation as another dimension of what we hope to achieve, but the sort of the soft side of early warning is going to be critical in this and as Mark said, governance is a big part of that as well so we really do look to the local governments and the communities themselves to take the lead in this. You really need a people-friendly approach to make this work and that's what we'll try to achieve.

LAGON: One other aspect I want to raise - before I take your question - of transparency is the need for governments to share information with each other, transparently and quickly. Just to cite an example, the government of India has misgiving about giving immediate real time information about seismological developments. This is important. Now I want to turn to my colleague from our United States National Science Foundation, Jim Whitcomb, to talk a little bit about that important need to share information, like about seismological activity.

WHITCOMB: I think what Mark is referring to is that in this particular instance the earthquake started in the South and ruptured to the North and it's mind boggling that something of this size - it took a full seven minutes to rupture the whole length of the earthquake. The National Science Foundation supports an organization called IRIS, which conceived and installed the global seismic network with partners - U.S. Geological Survey and some help from the Department of Energy. We have a number of those stations on real time data transmission that are going directly to the tsunami warning center and other monitoring centers. These people saw that an earthquake happened within a few minutes, but it would have been very nice to have stations to the North, in India and China, to see the propagation of this rupture that took seven minutes. We would have been able to tell a little bit more quickly how big this earthquake was because something that's a magnitude 9 or larger is very difficult to tell the size of until you get information from all different directions around the epicenter of the earthquake.

QUESTION: Hi. Saki Ouchi, Yomiuri Shimbun. If I could follow up on the question of Voice of America, these stakeholders sort of set aside meeting to deal with climate change word - can you elaborate which countries are in this meeting?

LAGON: It's a very large group, you know, including a number of European states - Canada, I mean, in fact, I've been involved in many a meeting at the U.N. and sometimes when you are working on an outcome document, a small group of interested parties goes aside to deal with a particularly thorny issue. It looks like it's such a rather large group who maybe dealing with this ... But the chair of the drafting session, you know, said, you know, this is one discreet set of issues that should all be dealt with together and there'll be a lot of different nations involved in this question. I don't know that this is the dominant, you know, this is not the dominant controversy of the outcome document - there are lots of other ones. But there are different views on the kind of emphasis that should be there. As I've pointed out to your colleague from AP, it's just the United States' view is that there are other venues for dealing with a policy on climate change and disproportionate focus on that might be a distraction from the larger promise of this conference. But that's for the collective whole of all the participants to decide.

Any others? I'd welcome any more questions. Sir?

QUESTION: I'm David (inaudible) from Nature Magazine.

LAGON: I can hear you.

QUESTION: Good. I just wanted to follow up on the question that you had ... the statement you made about the data not being offered from India. Does that also include China? You mentioned China in the same sentence.

WHITCOMB: There's a number of Chinese stations in the global seismic network, but there's ... on certain of the stations there's a delay, I believe, of a hundred minutes or so on some of the stations before you can access the data.

QUESTION: Was that data ... Have you requested that data in the past and they refused to give it to you? Or ...

WHITCOMB: I think we're seeing the data sent to us routinely to the Global Seismic Network Data Center, which is run by IRIS. But it's not available in real time.

QUESTION: Does that go for India and China as well?

WHITCOMB: India is a slightly different case. I don't think we have any data from Indian stations. They're not a part of the Global Seismic Network and we would certainly welcome joining with them. The Global Seismic Network is a partnership of many different countries, not only just the U.S., which has about 137 stations, but there's French stations, there's Japanese stations and others involved in that.

QUESTION: Drawing from your statement before, if you had had that data, then it wouldn't have taken one hour to get from an 8.0 measurement to a 9.0 measurement. You would have had that within ...

WHITCOMB: That's a fair statement. Our goal is to be able to measure the size of an earthquake within minutes and that's very difficult to do in a magnitude 9. In order to do that, you need to have stations all the way around so you can see this asymmetric signal that comes out from the rupture taking seven minutes to go from point A to point B. So, yeah, you do need stations all the way around in order to accomplish that goal that we want to have of being able to tell if an earthquake is an magnitude 8 versus a magnitude 9 or larger.

QUESTION: On the seismic readings, I understand that comprehensive test ban treaty organization in Vienna, which has its network set up is looking at the possibility of using that more actively in seismic reporting. How does that work into this? Would that be useful or ... ?

WHITCOMB: That's a very good question. The network that you're referring to cooperates with the Global Seismic Network. Global Seismic Network stations are a part of that system. There's different categories of stations and I think just to put it simply, they cooperate and share the same data.

LAGON: Other questions? Okay. That's what we're here for.

QUESTION: This may sound a bit similar to my previous question, but in the past, different countries had, some countries were pointing out that the United States could possibly play a greater role assisting early warning systems and I was wondering, you know, throughout the events in the last several months, has that kind of determination has changed, or what the United States intends to do differently in the past?

LAGON: Who are you talking about who suggested the United States could do more on early warning that it did not do?

QUESTION: I am speaking in general.

LAGON: Well, I think, you know, you need to cite examples of who before December 26 was suggesting the United States was not doing acting greatly enough. The whole world has decided that it needs to act with more urgency and the United States is equally committed to that. For the third time, I'm happy to agree, yes, the United States has a heightened focus on this after the tsunami. It is a terrible tragedy that so many people died and so many people's lives have been displaced, but perhaps in the wake of that terrible situation, will galvanize activity.

LAGON: Others? Sir.

QUESTION: I'd just like to ...

LAGON: You can hear me, right?

QUESTION: Yeah. I'd just like to get your opinion on the future role of the U.S. military in helping out for natural disasters. For example, in the Kobe earthquake ten years ago, then Ambassador Mondale offered to send down an aircraft carrier to Kobe harbor and it was refused. But, this time in the Indian Ocean disaster, we saw the U.S. military give a rapid response. What kinds of future roles for the U.S. military in natural disasters does the United States envision?

LAGON: Well, you know ... the United States military forces are involved in lots of different operations and lots of different roles around the world. We are pleased that we can contribute something and that U.S. military forces have been welcomed in a number of states to play a role. Look, every country beyond its own share of world GDP has special things it can offer. As it happens, the United States has a pretty substantial military capacity - one of lift, and so on. And the United States is very willing to apply that, when welcome, to humanitarian efforts. The United States pledged 350 million dollars for tsunami relief. But on top of that, every day, the United States - its been calculated - spends about 6 million dollars on the application of its military assets for the tsunami relief. It's something we're glad to do. It seems it's been welcomed. But if a capacity can really help, the United States is willing to apply it. Hold on, Len would like to add to that.

ROGERS: I would just point out that this is unusual in the scale of the response, but the fact of the matter is the U.S. military has often been utilized in disasters and at AID they are - we recognize there are circumstances where the civilian side of our disaster response capacity just doesn't have the logistically ability to respond as quickly as we would like. So, we do request the military to provide assistance and they have done so in the past. There were major floods in Mozambique and it was very difficult to get assets into that part of the world, so the military did provide assistance and flew helicopters into South Africa and then they were used in Mozambique. They provided assistance in Bangladesh floods recently, so it's not at all unusual that the U.S. military would respond in natural disaster if in fact the need for capacity is there. In the breakfast that Mark mentioned this morning with Jan Egeland, he was very appreciative of logistical capacity that the U.S. military has brought to this tsunami relief effort. The ability to station an aircraft carrier with helicopters offshore has been very, very important in the response there, but again, there's nothing particularly unusual about the fact that we would ask the military to help out when they have unique capacity.


QUESTION: Thank you. Justin McCurry from The Guardian. Given that relations between the United States and the United Nations have been somewhat strained in recent years over Iraq among other issues, do you see this conference as an opportunity - I won't say to 'kiss and make up' - but certainly to mend fences with the United Nations, and what would have to happen in concrete terms for that kind of 'mini' reconciliation to take place? Thank you.

LAGON: Well, I think the image of a spat, of a conflict, may be poorly placed. I think the relationship between the United States and the U.N. is often caricatured. There have been some mutual frustrations - not just the United States with the U.N., but the U.N. Secretary and some members of the U.N. with the United States. It's perhaps natural between, you know, a leading power of the world and the leading multilateral organization of the world. But really, the United States has been committed to working with the U.N.. I mean, much of the controversy with regard to Iraq, you know, flows from the United States, you know, going repeatedly to the U.N. Security Council for explicit mandates with regard to the intervention there. It's not going to be this conference that transforms the relationship between the United States and the U.N.. But it should be understood as I referred to earlier - the purpose of the United States policy at the U.N. is not to shut down the U.N., it's not to retard the U.N., it's not to constrain the U.N.'s role; it's to ask the questions about what the U.N.'s original purposes are of promoting peace, diminishing suffering, promoting development. And what the United States tries to do in many ways in emphasize, you know, those ways the U.N. can actually help serve its initial purposes. So when I referred to the emphasis the United States is making at this conference on good governance - that's part of a larger effort of the United States to encourage the work of the United Nations to help promote democracy and good governance, which is useful to the two major goals of the U.N.: peace - because democracy and good governance underwrites peace - and development. Democracy and good governance are facilitators of development. The U.N. has moved a great deal on that direction in recent years, in particularly the U.N. Development Program - the United States is trying to encourage it. Very often, the United States is in the position of encouraging something that is a promising development in the U.N., not chastising the U.N. or curbing its influence.

Others? Let me take one more question if anybody has one. Sir? This will be the last one.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) of the AFP. Just to expand a little bit on what you're talking about with the seismic network in terms of improving cooperation with the Chinese and the Indians, is this, as it were, a proposal that's on the table to open up to get more cooperation from India and China? And if so, what's the reaction been?

LAGON: There is no definitive initiative, but in the discussions of early warning, and all the different forms of detection, seismic activity is important. My only point is that governments have a responsibility to their people to inform them about potential dangers. They also have responsibilities to their neighbors. There is a collective ability of nations to share information and reduce the human harm to all of them in general. But in terms of something specific that's being discussed here with a tangible outcome of this meeting, I'm not sure that there'll be something that is, you know, a definitive understanding. Jim?

WHITCOMB: I just want to mention that the Indian government has convened a meeting that's meeting this week, and there is a representative from the National Science Foundation that is going to that. Certainly one of the topics of conversation will be to encourage our colleagues in India to join with us in the Global Seismic Network.

LAGON: The Indians have played a very constructive role in the follow-on from the tsunami disaster and we're working with them across the board. This is one area where we hope they could be even more cooperative. Anyway, thank you very much and if you want to follow up with questions before the end of the conference, I am available.