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Disaster Risk Mitigation – Why Human Rights Matter

Claudine Haenni Dale and Walter Kälin

INTRODUCTION

Existing human rights obligations already require states to take measures to mitigate the risks of natural or man-made disasters—including those due to climate change—and thus to prevent displacement.

The European Court of Human Rights recently clarified these obligations when it had to address the question as to whether and when deaths caused by a man-made or natural disaster can amount to a human rights violation by the state, thus obliging it to compensate the survivors. The Court’s case-law allows us to conclude that failing to take feasible measures that would have prevented or mitigated the consequences of foreseeable disasters amounts to a violation of the right to life and therefore incurs the responsibility of the state under international law. Two judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, the Öneryildiz case and the Budayeva case, are particularly relevant.

The Öneryildiz case[1] deals with the consequences of a methane explosion in a public rubbish dump, used by several city districts, situated on a slope overlooking a valley in Ümraniye, Istanbul. Ten slum dwellings in the immediate vicinity of the dump were engulfed by the refuse and 39 people were killed. Some two years previously, experts had warned the authorities of the risk of such an explosion but no steps were taken–either to burn off the gases that had built up in the waste disposal site or to evacuate neighbouring houses.

In the Budayeva case [2], in July 2000 a mudslide swept through Tyrnauz, a town situated in a mountainous region in the central Caucasus, killing several people and destroying many buildings. The mudslide was triggered by the Gerhozhansu River that runs through the town and was the last in a long series of similar events. Tyrnauz had been protected by various mud retention dams but these were badly damaged by particularly heavy mudslides in 1999 and never repaired, despite warnings by the state metrological institute. Two weeks earlier the agency had informed the local Ministry for Disaster Relief about the imminent danger of a new disaster and had requested that observation points be set up in the upper sections of the river and that an emergency warning be issued if necessary. None of the proposed measures were taken.

The day before the main disaster, a flow of mud and debris hit the town and flooded some of the residential quarters–but without causing any casualties. The local authorities ordered the evacuation of affected parts of the town bud did not stop evacuees returning to their homes the following day when the mud level lowered. It was then that the main mudslide hit the town and at least eight people were killed.

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[1] European Court of Human Rights, Öneryildiz v. Turkey, Application 48939/99, judgment of 30 November 2004.
[2] European Court of Human Rights, Budayeva and others v. Russia, Application nos. 15339/02 and 15343/02, judgment of 20 March 2008.