Beyond the Disaster: A Call for Japanese Leadership in International Disaster Response Law

Elizabeth Ferris and
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University
Kei Hakata

March 22, 2011

In the week following the powerful earthquake and tsunami, 102 governments and 14 international organizations offered their assistance to Japan.[1] The generous outpouring of compassion was an encouraging sign to a Japanese population reeling from the effects of the disaster. In the initial period, search and rescue teams from 16 countries were deployed, military support for logistical operations was mobilized, and bilateral assistance from a number of governments was initiated. In particular, given the troubling situation at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the expertise in nuclear technology offered by various governments and international organizations was particularly needed.

When it came to facilitating additional assistance from international actors, the Japanese government had the necessary policies in place, which allowed decisions to be taken rather smoothly on the basis of assessments of where foreign assistance was needed to complement national efforts .[1] For example, the Japanese government considered how to deal with foreign medical personnel, promptly deciding that they could be allowed to provide necessary minimum medical assistance in affected areas.[2] When a disaster strikes, authorities shouldn’t have to spend time deciding on issues such as whether to suspend standard customs procedures or certification processes for foreign medical personnel or landing fees for relief goods. The policies need to be in place before disasters strike.

The State of International Disaster Response Law

At the multilateral level, currently there is no binding international convention outlining the rights and responsibilities of governments to respond to natural disasters. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols of 1977 specify the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but they only address the situation of armed conflicts. As for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons, the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement emphasize the responsibility of sovereign governments and the complementary role of international assistance, but they do not elaborate on a more general relief system. More recently the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), composed of UN and other humanitarian agencies, has issued Operational Guidelines on the Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters,[3] which, as the name suggests, are not binding and are intended to assist humanitarian organizations rather than governments of disaster-affected countries.  

In the 1970s, the UN Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO) proposed a draft “Convention on Expediting the Delivery of Emergency Assistance” which led to the adoption of “Measures to Expedite International Relief” by the International Conference of Red Cross and ECOSOC in 1977.[4] While this did not result in a binding treaty, more than thirty years later, there are encouraging signs. In 2006, the International Law Commission  took up the issue of  international disaster relief law and is currently engaged in drafting articles on the protection of persons in the event of disasters.[5]

On a more technical level, the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies adopted Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance in 2007.[6]  Though not binding, these Guidelines spell out the core responsibilities of affected states and assisting actors. They detail needed early warning and institutional frameworks, procedures for initiating and terminating international disaster relief (including by military actors), and legal facilities for entry and operations of both personnel and relief goods. For example, they call for expedited visa processing and customs clearance for relief personnel, goods and equipment; facilitation of relief transport, and exemptions from taxes, duties and fees on relief activities. At one level, these are technical issues, but in the aftermath of a disaster, they can mean the difference between life and death. When a disaster strikes – whether an earthquake in Japan or flooding in Pakistan or a hurricane in the US  — it is difficult for stressed authorities to develop the necessary policies to facilitate needed international assistance quickly and in a way which respects the fundamental right of national governments to oversee the relief effort. These policies need to be developed before a disaster occurs and to be ready for implementation in the days immediately after a crisis. Experience has shown that the wake of a major disaster is the wrong time to try to develop new rules and systems to address these kinds of problems. 

While the Japanese Red Cross has provided important support to the efforts of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to promote these guidelines, the time is right for the Japanese government to assert leadership in this area.

The Need for a Convention and Japan’s Role

When the immediate crisis is over, the Japanese government could propose a multilateral convention to facilitate international relief efforts in line with the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly concerning natural disaster and the Red Cross and IASC Guidelines. The building blocks for such a convention already exist in the various resolutions, guidelines, and legal initiatives, but they are scattered and need to be brought together into a comprehensive legal instrument. Such a Convention could reiterate the responsibility of sovereign states to both facilitate and regulate international assistance through adoption of national policies and procedures before a disaster strikes. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the Pakistani floods illustrate that both developed and developing countries need to take such actions. 

After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the Japanese government developed new guidelines and policies for reducing the risk of damages from future earthquakes and today is widely recognized as being a world leader in disaster risk reduction. Ten years after the Kobe earthquake, the Hyogo Plan of Action for Disaster Risk Reduction [7]was developed at an international conference in Japan to provide a framework for international action to mitigate the most harmful effects of natural hazards.   

Today, in the aftermath of one of the deadliest disasters in the country’s history, it would be both appropriate and inspirational for Japan to exercise leadership in developing and supporting a legal framework to expedite international assistance when disaster strikes. The East Japan earthquake could serve as an impetus for countries around the world to make sure that policies are in place to ensure that international assistance can be delivered quickly and effectively when the need arises. Each disaster gives us a moment to reflect – and to act.  Just as the Kobe earthquake led Japan to a world leadership role in urging disaster risk reduction, it is timely and appropriate that Japan take the lead in developing and promoting a new legal framework on international relief. This would be a fitting legacy, we believe, of the terrible tragedy that Japan has experienced in recent days.

[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 15 March 2011.

[2] The Disaster Management Operation Plan of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (2001, modified 2009), in Part II, Chapter 3, Section 6 (1), provides that in case of a significantly large-scale disaster, foreign medical staff who can act in a self-sufficient manner shall be accepted according to the necessity (non-official translation).

[3] 14 March, the decision to allow foreign medical practitioners to exercise the necessary minimum medical practice was transmitted to the affected prefectures by the Medical Professions Division, Health Policy Bureau, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (source: sitrep no. 16 of the MHLW dated 16 March). This constitutes an exceptional measure to the Medical Practitioners Act of 1948 which prohibit the non-holders of Japanese medical license to practice.


[5] “Law and legal issues in international disaster response: a desk study” (IFRC, 2007)

[6] All documentation related to the ILC’s work on the Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters is available at: