Tianjin blasts: UN expert slams China for lack of openness

(From AP)

A U.N. human rights expert has criticized China for its lack of transparency in handling a chemical blast in the northeastern city of Tianjin.

Victims of Tianjin warehouse blasts protest demanding compensation for damages to their homes

Victims of Tianjin warehouse blasts protest demanding compensation for damages to their homes Wednesday

Baskut Tuncak, U.N.’s expert on hazardous substances and waste, said the disaster might have been prevented or the extent of the damage limited if authorities had provided more information and pointed to countries’ obligations to inform the public about hazardous substances.

“This chemical disaster serves as yet another tragic example of the need of information about hazardous substances to protect, respect and realize human rights,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

“The lack of information when needed — information that could have mitigated or perhaps even prevented this disaster — is truly tragic.”

The comments amount to an unusually sharp rebuke for Beijing from a U.N. expert and join appeals in China for better communication from authorities about the fates those who were killed or remain missing. The Aug. 12 blasts at a warehouse for hazardous materials in Tianjin killed at least 114 people. Another 65 people are still missing and 674 are hospitalized.

The statement criticized Chinese press restrictions after the explosions and called for “complete transparency” in the pending investigation.

“The reported restrictions on public access to health and safety information and freedom of the press in the aftermath are deeply disturbing, particularly to the extent it risks increasing the number of victims of this disaster,” Buncak added.

The blasts occurred at a warehouse where 700 tons of sodium cyanide — a toxic chemical that can form combustible substances on contact with water — was being stored in amounts that violated safety rules.

A public statement from Tianjin’s mayor came only Wednesday, a week after the deadly blasts.

“”As the major leader of Tianjin, I have inescapable responsibility for the incident,” said mayor Huang Xingguo.

He said he could not hold media conferences because he was busy directing rescue work.

In the first few days after the blasts, vital information on the accident was not available because of press restrictions at the local level.

Like the UN expert, Chinese media too felt that local officials lacked openness.

During the first dozens of hours after the blasts, there was scant information offered by the Tianjin authorities, Global Times said in an editorial.

Slow reaction and silence on the part of officials can lead to rumours running riot, it said.

China Daily’s editorial noted that many questions remain to be answered.

“When the entire site will be cleared up remains a question, and whether there is still any potential health threat from toxic gas in the air or contamination of the nearby environment remains to be determined,” it said.

Common people too want to know whether the warehouse violated safety norms, why a company storing such hazardous chemicals was allowed to function dangerously close to a residential area and how much their health is going to be affected by the exposure to chemicals caused by the blast.

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