TIME Belgium

Belgium Extends Euthanasia Law to Kids

Activists of the collective Yellow Safety Jacket protest against the proposed statutory amendment legalizing the euthanasia of young children, in Brussels, Feb. 11, 2014.
Activists of the collective Yellow Safety Jacket protest against the proposed statutory amendment legalizing the euthanasia of young children, in Brussels, Feb. 11, 2014. Julien Warnand—EPA

Lawmakers passed a bill allowing euthanasia in very rare cases of terminally ill children

Belgium became the first country in the world to remove any age restrictions on euthanasia, after an emotional debate which split the medical profession over the best way to treat a terminally ill child with a desire to end his or her life.

Despite last-minute pleas for a rethink from within Belgium and as far away as Canada, parliament on Thursday agreed with the doctors who argued that in rare cases of unbearable and irreversible suffering, children should have the same right as an adult to ask to die with dignity.

Under the amendments to the country’s 2002 euthanasia law, a child of any age can be helped to die, but only under strict conditions. He or she must be terminally ill, close to death, and deemed to be suffering beyond any medical help. The child must be able to request euthanasia themselves and demonstrate they fully understand their choice. The request will then be assessed by teams of doctors, psychologists and other care-givers before a final decision is made with approval of the parents.

Dr. Jutte Van der Werf Ten Bosch, a pediatric oncologist from University Hospital Brussels, says such cases are very rare, but heartbreaking for families and doctors when they do come up. She recalls the frustration of treating a 16-year-old girl who was suffering severe complications from leukemia and was lying in a hospital bed connected to tubes, waiting to die.

“It was just hell for six months in the hospital,” she says. “I feel like a total failure in these cases. … You promise the child ‘I will take care of you, I will do the best I can,’ and then you can’t do the best you can because all these complications arise and you can’t do anything about it.”

She has come across children as young as eight who have articulated an understanding of their situation, but doctors expect the most likely cases would involve adolescents.
While assisted suicide is permitted under certain conditions in Switzerland, Germany and parts of the United States, only Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands allow doctors to take steps to actively end a patient’s life, usually by administering an overdose of sedatives. In Luxembourg, that patient must be over 18, while in The Netherlands children can request euthanasia from the age of 12.

Belgium’s existing euthanasia law for adults has broad public support, and a recent survey by the RTBF broadcaster found that 75% of people supported extending the same rights to children. Parliament approved these amendments on Thursday with 86 MPs voting in favor, 44 against, and 12 abstentions. The Senate had already passed the bill in December.
But there has been opposition, both from religious groups and more than 170 Belgian pediatricians who signed an open letter to parliament this week requesting they delay the vote.

Dr. Stefaan Van Gool, a pediatrician at the University of Leuven, says the doctors were concerned that procedures for assessing a child’s mental capacity to make life-and-death decisions were not sufficiently clear in the bill. They were also worried a child might be pressured into making a decision by parents, and that were are too many possibilities for misuse of the law.
“We are suffering together with these children to get through the most difficult moments of life, but at such time what we deliver to these children is care,” he says, adding that his experiences show children want to live as full a life as possible right until the very end. “We have children who do exams up to two days before they die. They are children that always dream about a future, although this future may only be a few hours.”

A plea also came from Canada earlier this month, where a four-year-old girl born with a congenital heart condition recorded a video message urging Belgium’s King Philippe not to sign the law, which is the final formality. Her mother told the monarch that she was concerned that a child like her daughter—who grew up to be a happy, active child—could be euthanized after birth.

Dr. Gerlant van Berlaer, a pediatrician who also works at the University Hospital Brussels, understands why the debate in Belgium has provoked strong feelings all over the world. “I would be rather scared if it didn’t evoke emotional reactions: we’re talking about children,” he tells TIME.
But he says no doctor would ever take the decision to end a child’s life lightly. “The first reaction I will always have and all my colleagues will have is to run away from these questions because we don’t want to hear this,” he says.

He remains haunted by all the cases in which he was powerless to do anything. He cites the case of a child with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, where the muscles degenerate to the point where a sufferer can no longer swallow or speak. “They can see the children in the bed next to them suffocate,” he says. “They will say, ‘I know my life will end, but doctor, just don’t let it end like my friend’s did.’”

Until now, the law has not allowed him to even discuss such an option. “This child asked me not to let him suffocate,” he says. “Of course I did not do anything active at the time, but I’m still struggling with this, because I did not respond to the last question of the child.”

TIME Cambodia

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Trials Are a Shocking Failure

Former Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea is seen on a television screen (R) as people (L) line up to attend the trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh in Oct. 2013 Tang Chhin Sothy—AFP/Getty Images

Hearings into an appalling genocide have seen just five indictments and only one conviction in eight years at a cost of some $200 million

Tourists who wander Cambodia’s Killing Fields don’t just encounter the ghosts of victims. Even today, scraps of clothing and bone fragments belonging to some of the 1.7 million people slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge peek through the brooding earth.

From 1975 until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, Cambodia experienced one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, during which around a quarter of the population perished as Pol Pot pursued his demented agrarian utopia.

Phnom Penh’s glorious Parisian-style boulevards were emptied as ruthless cadres — many mere babes handed AK47s and indoctrinated with nihilistic zeal — forced the entire population to toil in the fields, and ruthlessly culled anyone on the flimsiest pretense. Crying at a funeral, falling ill or wearing eyeglasses were deemed anti-revolutionary and met with torture and gruesome death.

“For 20 years, I had nightmares every day, and every time I talked about what happened I would get stomach aches and all the symptoms of PTSD,” says Kilong Ung, who was 15 when the Khmer Rouge turned his life upside down and extinguished the lives of 50 of his relatives.

The U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was founded in 2006 to investigate these crimes against humanity and hold those responsible to account. The proceedings — touted as the largest such reckoning since the Nuremberg trials of prominent Nazis — were to target the very top level regime figures and those chiefly responsibly for particularly heinous acts. Life imprisonment was to be the maximum punishment.

But virtually since the outset, allegations of corruption and politicization have dogged the ECCC’s glacial progress, and proceedings were halted for long periods as national staff went on strike after not being paid. Late last month, an agreement was finally reached for funding to be restored after the U.N. received certain assurances. Nevertheless, serious questions still hover over a tribunal that has delivered only one conviction in eight years at a cost of some $200 million.

“This is no longer a legitimate court,” says Theary Seng, a prominent U.S.-trained human rights lawyer whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. “It’s a sham. It does such a disservice to Cambodian victims and international justice in general.”

The original ECCC was formed as a hybrid tribunal, comprising elements of international and domestic law, with proceedings heard by foreign and Cambodian judges. Four original cases were set out.

Case 001 against Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Comrade Duch, saw the former chief of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, convicted for crimes against humanity relating to more than 15,000 deaths. He is currently serving a life prison sentence.

Case 002 originally had four defendants. Nuon Chea, 87, was Pol Pot’s right hand man and known as “brother number 2.” Khieu Samphan, 82, was the former head of state. But former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sery died, and his wife, Ieng Thirit, another senior regime figure, was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

Cases 003 and 004 have stalled — even the names of those under investigation were not officially revealed, although they have been widely circulated. And that represents the entirety of proceedings.

Compared to this paltry total, there were 161 indictments in the former Yugoslavia, 95 in Rwanda and 22 in Sierra Leone. But “I don’t think the present government wants to have any further indictments other than the four accused in Case 002,” Victor Koppe, a Dutch lawyer currently defending Nuon Chea at the ECCC, tells TIME. “There are strong indications that they probably feel it is getting close to themselves.”

Many established figures in Cambodian politics today previously had positions of influence within the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen was himself a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, and lost an eye in battle before fleeing to Vietnam to escape an internal purge. (In 1975, his battalion oversaw a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Cham minority group, although Hun Sen claims to have been recovering in hospital at the time.)

The debate rages over whether the Khmer Rouge was “essentially a top-down, pyramidal type structure,” as maintained by Prof. Greg Stanton, an expert in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, or whether, as Koppe says, there were various and opposing factions responsible for atrocities. “To only focus on one faction within the Khmer Rouge is already questionable,” he argues.

Certainly, senior Khmer Rouge figures close to the Hun Sen administration have been barred from testifying, such as current National Assembly Chairman Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim. “In any other international tribunal the importance and relevance of someone like Heng Samrin would be so obvious,” says Koppe, frustrated that his “firsthand knowledge of decisions being made in ‘75 and afterwards” cannot be called upon. Blocking Heng Samrin from court, he adds, “is a clear sign of the unfairness of the proceedings.”

Critics say the trials have been highjacked to specifically absolve former leading Khmer Rouge figures now within Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party. “I’m in awe of Hun Sen,” says Theary Seng sardonically, deploring the “manipulated and whitewashed” history the ECCC is now helping to propagate. “It will go down in all the history books as a brilliant move.”

Crucially, Hun Sen insisted on proceedings taking place on home soil, a marked departure from other such tribunals, such as those investigating genocide in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, which took place in other countries. “True international tribunals [are] situated somewhere else and are much less prone to government influence or interference,” explains Koppe, who previously worked in the Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone tribunals.

Stanton says it was important to base the court domestically “to give Cambodians a way to understand what happened in their country,” However, he concedes that “Judges who are part of the Cambodian system are always going to continue to be influenced by Cambodian politics.”

The U.N. insists that it has done everything possible to ensure fair and transparent proceedings. “The long history of negotiations leading to the creation of the ECCC clearly establishes that alternative structures for justice were advanced and thoroughly considered by the Secretariat and by Member States of the United Nations,” spokesman Lars Olsen told TIME via email.

That is no comfort to victims such as Kilong Ung, for whom justice always felt beyond reach. “They are never going to catch the guy who starved my parents to death,” he says. “There are a lot of mid-level Khmer Rouge who got out with the refugees and are all over the world right now — some with the wealth they took with them. Just like the Nazis.”

TIME Barack Obama

Better Late Than Never: Obama Plans Asia Trip After No-Show

Obama's twice-canceled Asia visit finally happens in April Leslie E. Kossoff—Pool/Getty Images

But he does so at a time when the 'Asia pivot' seems to have lost some of its punch

After cancelling a trip to Asia last October because of the American government shutdown, U.S. President Barack Obama has scheduled a make-up tour in April with stops in Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Obama, who once declared himself the U.S.’ first “Pacific President,” will be visiting a part of Asia that illustrates both the economic excitement and geopolitical risk of the world’s most populous continent. Although the tastes of Asian consumers increasingly influence global economics, security tensions between some of the region’s biggest powers have pundits wondering whether military clashes between some of the world’s biggest economies could break out. Defense spending is escalating across much of the continent.

The four nations Obama is visiting are all embroiled in territorial disagreements — some with China, some with each other. These disputes in the East and South China seas have festered for decades but nationalist rhetoric across Asia’s eastern flank has sharpened the potential for armed conflict, even as regional economic interdependence grows.

In late 2011, the Obama Administration declared intentions to “pivot” to Asia, a policy shift designed to wean American foreign policy from its preoccupation with the Middle East and Afghanistan. The U.S. military plans to increase its Asia-Pacific presence, even at a time when overall defense spending is being slashed. Obama is also pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to bind a dozen nations together through free trade. Japan’s negotiations to enter the trade pact will surely be a major point of discussion during Obama’s time in Tokyo, especially since political support from Obama’s Democratic Party for his free trade effort appears to be slumping.

The Obama Administration once criticized former U.S. President George W. Bush’s government for undervaluing Asia and not sending high-wattage enough representation to regional meetings. Yet Obama has twice canceled planned Asia visits, once six months ago and another time in 2010. Both postponements came courtesy of domestic politics.

Now, with even the TPP taking blows in Washington, has the Asia pivot lost its punch? Indeed, since its much-heralded debut, the pivot has been rebranded as a rather less vigorous “rebalancing.” Other Administration officials have referred to a gauzy notion of a “Pacific Dream.” Last year while in Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry directly linked this Horatio Alger phraseology to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own “China Dream,” a fuzzy concept that appears to combine national pride with individual accomplishment. Kerry’s pointed dream analysis wasn’t lost on Beijing, which sees the pivot — or whatever it’s called these days — as an American effort to contain an ascendant China. Even the TPP, which looks unlikely to encompass the Chinese economy, is seen as carrying the whiff of a U.S. power play.

Kerry is again visiting the region this week in what can loosely be considered an advance tour for Obama’s April trip. The U.S. Secretary of State’s first stop on Feb. 13 is South Korea, then China the day after. In both places he will doubtless discuss the foreign-policy conundrum that is North Korea, as well as the icy relations both countries share with erstwhile wartime occupier Japan. Kerry next heads to Indonesia, where he will discuss climate change in a sprawling island nation particularly susceptible to environmental shifts.

On his visit to Japan last April, Kerry noted that “our Pacific Dream is to translate our strongest values into an unprecedented security, economic, and social cooperation.” He listed “our network of alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.” Shortly before Kerry began his latest Asia trip, a State Department official cautioned against “provocative actions” by China in relation to regional maritime quarrels. The tone was admonishing. Analysts in Beijing wondered if U.S. ally Japan, which has itself sounded the nationalist bell in territorial spats, was somehow being let off the hook by Washington. If nothing else, it’s worth noting that one Asian power — in fact the Asian power of the early 21st century — won’t be part of Obama’s April Asia tour. That would be China.

TIME Thailand

Thai Constitutional Court Hands PM Yingluck a Surprise Lifeline

Anti-government protesters enjoy a massage and read papers near a picture of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban in an occupied area, in downtown Bangkok
Anti-government protesters enjoy a massage and read papers near a picture of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban in an occupied area, in downtown Bangkok Feb. 6, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

Court upholds snap election results, but dismisses government petition as well

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s beleaguered caretaker government received a boost on Wednesday as Thailand’s Constitutional Court refused to annul last month’s elections and dissolve her Pheu Thai party.

“This case is over,” Wiratana Kalayasiri, head of the opposition’s legal team, who filed the petition, told AFP. “But if the government does anything wrong again, we will make another complaint.”

The decision effectively upholds February’s snap polls with one stroke, but it was not a complete victory for Thailand’s first female premier as the judges also declined to take punitive action against anti-government protesters for disrupting the voting process.

“It’s not as if the Pheu Thai’s case was a slam-dunk and the court simply, for political reasons, dismissed it,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a lawyer and independent scholar based in Bangkok.

Intimidation and besieged polling stations prevented some 2 million people from casting their ballots, while the Democrat Party boycotted the election entirely. Nevertheless, the court ruled that the protesters had a legal right to demonstrate and lower courts should handle any criminal violations.

“Their reasoning was essentially, ‘yes, the Democrat Party did prevent the polls from taking place, but that’s criminal violation and that should be handled by criminal courts not by our courts,’” adds Zawacki.

The Democrat Party’s petition was based on Yingluck’s failure to hold elections in one day, as is constitutionally required, but Zawacki called this “bad lawyering” based on a circular and overreaching argument, considering the opposition’s key role in blocking the polls.

Antigovernment protests have roiled Thailand for some three months now, during which at least 10 people have been killed and some 600 injured. Protesters want reforms to be carried out to rid Thailand of the influence of Yingluck and her divisive brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Analysts say Yingluck may have dodged a judicial bullet, as intervention by the Constitutional Court — an institution largely perceived as favoring the Democrat Party — has previously been used to remove Thaksin-backed governments from office and dissolve former iterations of her Pheu Thai party.

Nevertheless, her administration’s potential legal woes are far from over. Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission is currently investigating the caretaker government over a failed rice scheme; however, an indictment has yet to be filed.

The Election Commission ruled on Tuesday that new ballots will be held on April 27 for those prevented from voting last month. However, there are also 28 constituencies where no candidates stood due to a disrupted registration process; no decision has so far been taken on how to fill these seats.

TIME India

Liberal India Feels Under Threat After Publisher Pledges to Pulp ‘The Hindus’

The decision by Penguin India to recall and pulp a scholarly work has many concerned over freedom of expression in India Raveendran—AFP/Getty Images

Liberal India Feels Under Threat After Publisher Pledges to Pulp The Hindus

The outcry in India’s literary and media circles grew louder this week as the news sank in that Penguin India will recall and pulp all copies of U.S. scholar Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus in India. The publishing giant’s decision — an out-of-court settlement with a group that says the book is offensive to Hindus and therefore in violation of a law criminalizing “malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings” — has raised questions over freedom of expression in India. It’s also highlighted the polarized politics of the world’s largest democracy as it gets ready to stage national elections this spring.

Though New Delhi’s booksellers may have had a banner day on Wednesday as copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History flew off their shelves, the specter of the tome’s disappearance in India has observers concerned. Last month, Bloomsbury India also withdrew copies of the recently published The Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava, after a government minister named in the book filed a defamation case against the author and publisher in a Mumbai court.

In a Feb. 12 statement, PEN Delhi listed that and other examples of legal action facing publishers in India. And while the group lamented Penguin India’s decision “to settle the matter out of court, instead of challenging an adverse judgment,” it also acknowledged that the industry is under fire, and said the recall “comes at a time when Indian publishers have faced waves of threats from litigants, vigilante groups and politicians.” (Penguin has not yet released a statement, but Doniger’s can be read here.)

Nikhil Pahwa, a PEN Delhi member and editor of digital-media tracker MediaNama, says the threat of costly litigation has increasingly become an effective way for interest groups to influence publishers in recent years. “Libel chill is the quietest form of attacking freedom of expression, and often the least noticed,” says Pahwa. Ultimately, he says, it leads to self-censorship when editors choose what books to commission, impacting access to knowledge and preventing healthy debate. “I think we should counter words with words,” he says.

(MORE: Sex, Lies and Hinduism: Why a Hindu Activist Targeted Wendy Doniger’s Book)

But the fate of The Hindus also reflects what many say is a deeper problem: the increasing ability of vocal interest groups to take control of the national conversation. Dinanath Batra, president of the Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan that filed lawsuits against Penguin India over Doniger’s book, told TIME that his demands weren’t unusual in a global context. “If someone makes a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims are outraged around the world,” Batra said. “So why should anyone write anything against Hinduism and get away with it? It matters because this book is hurting the sentiments of Hindus all over the world.”

Certainly, many agree with Batra. (Some less articulate — and less polite — sentiments against Doniger’s book are being aired under the Twitter hashtag #WendyDoniger.) Batra and other critics of the book have said it is inaccurate and gratuitously oversexualizes aspects of Hinduism. But many also disagree and say activist groups like his are, by exercising their legal right not to be offended, impinging on other Indians’ freedoms. Doniger’s book has not been banned, but other bodies of work have, and the very laws meant to protect India’s religious diversity have had the opposite effect. “Religious extremists have more in common than they’d like to believe,” Indian poet and novelist Jeet Thayil wrote in an email to TIME. “They live to take offense, to intimidate, to threaten. Capitulation is an error. You are asking for more trouble.”

Does The Hindus incident offer any insight into the mood of the country ahead of this spring’s polls? Author Chetan Bhagat cautions against casting the sensitivities expressed by Batra as part of a strengthening Hindu nationalist sentiment, even if it takes place at the same time as the political rise of opposition leader Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. What is happening, he says, is that the country is becoming more polarized as the vote draws near. “There is less respect for fundamental rights. Anybody with a little support group can gang up,” Bhagat says. As a result, a certain liberal sensibility — for people to vociferously object to a book and accept its right to exist — is in retreat. And that makes India look like an intolerant place. “People don’t realize they are harming the image of the country,” Bhagat says, “and the religion they are protecting.”

— With reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick / New Delhi

MORE: Penguin India to Recall and Destroy Renowned American Scholar’s Book on Hinduism

TIME The Vatican

Pope Francis Comic Books Now On Your iPhone

Pope Francis comic books are now in app form.
Pope Francis comic books are now in app form. Master New Media S.r.I.

A new app spreads the Pope's word to kids

Who needs apostles when you can have app-postles?

The people who introduced Pope Francis comic books to Italy last November released an app version of the product on Sunday. Now, young Catholics across the world can read comic books featuring Pope Francis’ most famous words and interactions and even color the scenes in themselves.

Both the original comic books and the app are designed to spread the Christian lessons of the Pope to kids in a fun and engaging way. But you’ll have to shell out $2.99 to color in the Pope’s cross on your iPad.

TIME russia

Russia Cancels Homework So Kids Can Watch the Olympics

Children wait for the start of the final run during the men's doubles luge at the 2014 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 12, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
Children wait for the start of the final run during the men's doubles luge at the 2014 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 12, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Natacha Pisarenko—AP

The Sochi Olympics have enlivened Russian national pride—and authorities are cutting back on homework for kids to keep the euphoria going

The Russian constitution does not actually grant parliament the right to assign homework to every kid in the land. But during the Olympics, the chamber seems to have vested itself with those powers. On Wednesday morning, the ruling party of President Vladimir Putin told all of Russia’s teachers to reduce homework for students during the Winter Games in Sochi so that they all have time to watch Team Russia compete.

“In my view, that would be the right decision,” said the chamber’s speaker, Sergei Naryshkin. To justify the measure, Naryshkin said that Russia’s Ministry of Defense had likewise cut the training hours for all military personnel during the Olympics. “Now our servicemen have more of a chance to follow the competition,” Naryshkin noted.

But these measures were not done just for the love of sport. They were an effort to capitalize on the surge of national pride that the Sochi Olympics have brought. For years, Putin has made it his mission to promote patriotism among the Russian youth, even claiming that western powers are in a constant “battle” with his government over their moral character. “Russian society today is experiencing an obvious deficit of spiritual staples,” Putin said in a speech last year. “We must not only develop confidently, but also preserve our national and spiritual identity, not lose ourselves as a nation.”

And what better way to promote Russia’s sense of national purpose than to watch Russian Olympians skiing, curling, bobsledding and riding the halfpipe on their own home turf? Maybe it would help if they were doing a little better in the medals tally. So far, Team Russia is in seventh place, one slot behind the United States, having won only one gold medal during the first five days of the Games.

But merely having the Olympics in Russia has already brought a boost to national pride, especially after the opening ceremony on Feb. 7 presented a historical collage of Russian triumphs. That night, even some of the jaded urbanites of Moscow got swept up in the moment. “Most of my fellow citizens, including me and many of my friends, are willingly succumbing to a patriotic surge,” the prominent banker Igor Kulchik wrote on the website of Snob magazine. “And for the first time in many years we are saying without sarcasm or venom, but with pride, ‘We are Russia, this is our country.'”

Now the trick will be to keep that euphoria going, to make it permanent. A couple more hours a night of Olympic hockey and figure skating may not be enough to achieve that for a whole generation. But at the price of a few lousy algebra quizzes and a couple chapters of Tolstoy, it’s worth a try.

TIME U.K.

Wet U.K. Swamped by Floodwaters and Politicians

Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage tours flooded properties and roads as he visits Chertsey on Feb. 11, 2014 in Chertsey, United Kingdom.
Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage tours flooded properties and roads as he visits Chertsey on Feb. 11, 2014 in Chertsey, United Kingdom. Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

The wettest winter weather in centuries has led to a deluge of attention-seeking politicians

There are two battles raging on an island waterlogged as rarely in its history. England and Wales are huddled against the wettest winter for more than two centuries, according to data from the Met Office; today the U.K.’s official weather service also issued a rare red alert warning of a risk to life and property as violent winds bear down on the country. Residents, watching their communities overwhelmed by flood waters, deprived of electricity or isolated after giant waves and howling storms breached roads and transport lines, face a struggle to survive. There have been casualties including 7-year-old Zane Gbangbola, thought to have asphyxiated on fumes given off by pumps used to try to clear water out of his home in Surrey, southwest of London. Many more face smaller griefs: the loss of personal possessions; the certainty of months, even years, of hardship and disruption.

The second battle is, for most Britons, less serious but it’s no less visceral for that. Prince Charles triggered it, by acting, as he told TIME, he is impelled to do. “I feel more than anything else it’s my duty to worry about everybody and their lives in this country, to try to find a way of improving things if I possibly can,” he explained back in September, and so on Feb. 4 he pulled on his Wellington boots and waded, more or less literally, into the issue of the flooding in a part of southwestern England called the Somerset Levels. “There’s nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people doing something. The tragedy is that nothing happened for so long,” he said, surveying the devastation.

It is safe to assume that he meant the failures by serial governments to invest in flood defenses or by the Environment Agency, the body tasked with combating floods and managing rivers, to act more decisively to mitigate further disaster and discomfort. Or he may have been referring to climate change, a threat that he has highlighted for decades.

What the Prince almost certainly did not mean is that it was a tragedy that public figures had not, until that moment, taken it upon themselves to view the damage for themselves. Yet that has been one side effect of his visit. This BuzzFeed post captures the result: 21 Pictures Of Politicians In Wellies Staring At Floods.

It won’t be easy for any one political party to gain traction amid the rising waters. The current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition has cut the funding to the Environment Agency; predecessor Labour governments also underestimated the investment needed to dredge rivers and implement other precautionary measures. But that won’t put a dampener on the Westminster blame game, especially with a parliamentary by-election tomorrow and European elections in the spring.

And politicians need only look across the Atlantic to understand the dangers of seeming to do too little in the teeth of natural disasters. As ice storms gather again in parts of the U.S., Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been quick to assure TIME that his city is ready, this time. Prime Minister David Cameron, who yesterday promised “money would be no object” in helping those affected by the U.K. floods, earned sharp criticism in 2007 when still in opposition by departing on a planned aid trip to Rwanda instead of visiting his own constituents in Witney, West Oxfordshire, amid heavy flooding there. In past days some political insiders have questioned whether the current floods, Biblical in scale, might prove his Hurricane Katrina. Others see this as an opportunity for Cameron to demonstrate his calm head in a crisis. For the people on the sharp end of nature, none of this looks like an opportunity.

TIME Africa

Elephants Face Growing Threats in Central Africa

Park rangers are fighting well-armed, highly-skilled groups in the battle over central Africa's elephants

+ READ ARTICLE

Rangers in Chad’s Zakouma National Park are fighting an uphill battle against poachers, who are showing increasing sophistication in their quest to capture ivory.

Armed groups are using updated tactics, cutting edge technology and heavy weaponry captured from government armories to battle park rangers. Last year, poachers armed with machine guns ambushed a group of rangers as they emerged from their tents for morning prayers. Six rangers were killed and only one survived.

In 2003, the Zakouma National Park’s elephant population was at 4,000. Now, it is down to just 450 animals. Every year, over 20,000 elephants are killed each for their ivory tusks, with much of the killing occurring in conflict zones in central Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad and Central African Republic, according to WWF figures.

On Tuesday, the United States said it would ban all imports and most exports of ivory. But as long as poaching helps fund criminal networks and regional wars, the battle to save the elephants will likely continue.

More: TIME Explains The Link Between Wildlife Trafficking And Terrorism

TIME New Zealand

Nine Killer Whales Die In Rare Mass Beaching in New Zealand

The loss represents a severe blow to the country's orca population

+ READ ARTICLE

A pod of nine killer whales washed up dead on Wednesday in a rare mass stranding on the New Zealand coast, a loss conservationists said was a devastating blow to the country’s orca population.

Wildlife officials found the black-and-white animals – eight adults and one juvenile – overnight, after the orcas beached themselves on the far south coast of the South Island.

“By the time we were able to reach them they were all dead,” Department of Conservation spokesman Reuben Williams told AFP.

Researchers said it was unusual for so many whales to run ashore at the same time and they are now trying to understand what went wrong. “We’re working with Massey University and the Orca Research Trust to maximize whatever we can learn,” said Ros Cole, a New Zealand Park Ranger. “The team this morning flew in, and they’ve taken measurements and a small genetic sample.”

Scientists worry that the deaths will have a major impact on the New Zealand orca population, Williams said, as researchers count only about 200 left. The largest members of the dolphin family with no natural predator, orcas are the most widely distributed cetacean species in the world and can grow to lengths of up to 32 feet (9.8 metres).

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