Natural Disasters, Human Rights, and the Role of National Human Rights Institutions

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

October 25, 2008

In my presentation this morning, I would like to build on the remarks of Walter Kälin on the human rights of IDPs to focus specifically on human rights in natural disasters. I will then talk about the particular role which NHRIs can play: before a disaster hits, during a disaster and in the period of recovery and reconstruction.

Natural Disasters

A natural disaster is defined by the UN as: “the consequences of events triggered by natural hazards that overwhelm local response capacity and seriously affect the social and economic development of a region.” In other words, if an earthquake takes place on an uninhabited island and no one is affected, it is not a natural disaster. In order to be a disaster, people must be affected. Similarly, if flooding takes place in an area where there is adequate preparation, it probably isn’t a natural disaster. If a similar level of flooding, however, takes place in an area where there isn’t preparation and crops are ruined and people are forced to abandon their homes, it then can be a natural disaster. Similarly, heavy rainfalls occur in many parts of the world. Normally, they are not natural disasters, but when the rainfall is heavier than usual and when precautions have not been taken, a natural disaster can result. The rainfall itself is not the disaster, but rather the consequences of the rainfall.

There are two additional aspects of natural disasters that need to be explored before engaging in discussion of human rights and natural disasters.

First, just how ‘natural’ are ‘natural disasters?’ The distinction if often made between natural disasters – such as flooding – and man-made disasters, such as an oil spill or chemical accident. But often the consequences of natural disasters are worse because of human involvement. To use two examples from my own country: in the 1930s, terrible dust storms in the middle of the United States devastated the lives of inhabitants. For year after year, there was little rainfall, and the topsoil of a major area of the country simply blew away, leaving a swathe of desert. While the lack of rainfall was a natural phenomenon, the fact that a period of intense settlement had converted enormous grasslands into wheat fields and that farmers had plowed up the earth, exposing the soil to the wind was directly responsible for the disaster. If the farmers hadn’t settled in the region, if they hadn’t plowed up the ground, there would not have been a natural disaster. [1] A second more recent example is Hurricane Katrina which displaced over a million people in New Orleans and the Gulf coast in 2005. While the hurricane was a natural phenomenon, the fact that the Louisiana wetlands had been destroyed by developers in past decades eliminated a natural barrier for the hurricane. Without the wetlands, the Hurricane moved in full force to populated areas, thus causing the disaster. In other words, human actions frequently turn natural weather events into disaster. On this continent, there are many stories of drought which led to famine and disaster, e.g. Ethiopia in 1984-85, where the famine was a least partly the result of government policies. In fact, Amartya Sen has argued that democracies never experience famine because the political pressures force governments to take actions to prevent droughts or other calamities that would otherwise lead to famine.[2]

A second aspect of natural disasters concerns the speed at which they occur. A rapid-onset disaster includes earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, cyclones, etc. Slow-onset disasters, particularly droughts, develop over a period of time. This gives more time for precautions to be undertaken and for governments and the international community to mitigate the effects of a change in climate. In Southern Africa in 1992 where terrible drought occurred, famine was averted because of policies undertaken by governments in the region and by the international community.

It is generally easier to mobilize international support for sudden-onset disasters; in disasters with high media coverage, there is usually an outpouring of support which is not usually manifest for slow-onset disasters. The outpouring of support for the victims of the 2004 tsunamis, for example, dwarfed the response to victims of flooding in Bangladesh earlier in the year.

Climate Change and Natural Disasters

There has been a lot of speculation about the potential impact of climate change on displacement and some of the speculation is not based on hard evidence. What seems fairly clear, however, is that climate change is likely to increase both the frequency and the severity of natural disasters. It is also likely that global warming will result in sea level rises which may displace people living in low-lying coastal areas or on small islands. There are also predictions that climate change will produce changes in weather patterns which will increase slow-onset disasters, particularly droughts in some regions, including Africa.

Human Rights and Natural Disasters

The International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that 200 million people have been affected by natural disasters every year for the past two decades.[3] In the course of the past year, over 400 natural disasters took 16,000 lives, affected close to 250 million people and displaced many millions.

Most people who are displaced by natural disasters remain within the borders of their country. They are internally displaced persons (IDPs) as defined in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and thus entitled to the full range of rights and responsibilities included therein. As with people displaced by conflict, it is their national governments who are responsible for protecting and assisting them and with facilitating durable solutions for their displacement.

We know that poverty and marginalization makes things worse for victims of natural disasters. Natural disasters in poorer countries have higher casualties than disasters of similar magnitude in wealthier countries. Within countries, it is often the marginalized groups who suffer disproportionately. In Colombia and the Philippines, for example, it is usually poorer, marginalized groups who live on the slopes of volcanoes. People with more resources choose to live elsewhere. And so, when the volcanoes erupt, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately. In Central America and Brazil, it is the poor who live in shantytowns on the hills surrounding major cities – hills which are susceptible to mudslides at times of heavy rain. We know that women are more likely to die in floods by a factor of 3 or 4 to 1 than men. Children, the elderly, the disabled and the sick are also more likely to suffer as a result of natural disasters.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, there was recognition that disaster response involves more than delivery of humanitarian assistance. Growing recognition of the need to respect, uphold, and promote the human rights of those affected by natural disasters, whether displaced or not, was the driving force between efforts by the RSG to develop Operational Guidelines for Human Rights and Natural Disaster. These guidelines, which were formally adopted by the InterAgency Standing Committee in June 2006, are presently being used to train disaster responders on ways of ensuring that human rights are protected in the midst of disaster.[4]

The problems that are often encountered by persons affected by the consequences of natural disasters include: unequal access to assistance; discrimination in aid provision; enforced relocation; sexual and gender-based violence; loss of documentation; recruitment of children into fighting forces; unsafe or involuntary return or resettlement; and issues of property restitution.[5]

The Guidelines suggest a human rights approach to planning both the initial emergency and longer-term response. People do not lose their basic human rights as a result of a natural disaster or their displacement. Rather all of those affected by natural disasters, including those who are displaced, are entitled to the protection of all relevant human rights guarantees. As residents, and usually citizens of the country in which they are living, they are entitled to the protections afforded to all residents and citizens even though they may have particular needs related to the disaster and thus require specific assistance and protection measures.

As with all situations of internal displacement, the primary duty and responsibility to provide such protection and assistance lies with the national authorities of the affected countries. Those affected by natural disasters have the right to request and receive such protection and assistance from their governments.

The Operational Guidelines stress that human rights encompass not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights. However, in the midst of a disaster, it is often difficult to simultaneously promote all rights for all of those affected. Thus for practical reasons, the Operational Guidelines divide human rights into four groups, namely:

  1. rights related to physical security and integrity (e.g. protection of the right to life and the right to be free of assault, rape, arbitrary detention, kidnapping, and threats to these rights);
  2. rights related to basic necessities of life (e.g. the rights to food, drinking water, shelter, adequate clothing, adequate health services, and sanitation);
  3. rights related to other economic, social and cultural protection needs (e.g. the rights to be provided with or have access to education, to receive restitution or compensation for lost property, and to work); and
  4. rights related to other civil and political protection needs (e.g. the rights to religious freedom and freedom of speech, personal documentation, political participation, access to courts, and freedom from discrimination).

The Operational Guidelines suggest that the first two groups of rights may be the most relevant during the emergency, life-saving phase. Thus in the initial disaster response, it is usually more important to ensure adequate access to water than to provide replacement identity cards to those who have been displaced. However, the guidelines insist that only the full respect of all four groups of rights can ensure adequate protection of the human rights of those affected by natural disasters, including of those who are displaced.[6]

The guidelines go on to state that “in all cases States have an obligation to respect, protect and to fulfill the human rights of their citizens and of any other persons in their territory or under their jurisdiction.”[7] States thus have a responsibility: to prevent violations of these rights from occurring or re-occurring; to stop them when they do occur, and to ensure reparation and full rehabilitation if a violation has happened.

When governments are unwilling or unable to fulfill these responsibilities, the international community needs to support and supplement the efforts of the government and local authorities. And these organizations as well – UN agencies, international and national non-governmental organizations, civil society, and IDP communities themselves – have a responsibility to ensure that their approaches and programs incorporate a human rights focus.

In fact, most often, rights are violated not because of conscious intention but because of the lack of awareness or planning based on a rights-based approach. Thus in the United States, the evacuation plans for New Orleans in 2005 were based on private vehicles – even though there were racial and class differences in vehicle ownership. While most middle class white people had access to private cars, many poor and African-American residents did not.[8] More recently, in the evacuation of New Orleans prior to Hurricane Gustav in August 2008, it was clear that officials had still not heeded the lessons learned from Katrina. While evacuation plans provided bus transportation for those without cars, displaced New Orleans residents were taken by bus to large communal shelters while those who evacuated by car were directed to churches, private homes and hotels.[9]

Experience has shown while patterns of discrimination emerge during the initial emergency response phase, the longer that displacement lasts, the greater the risk of human rights violations.

The Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement developed a manual on the Operational Guidelines to provide more concrete guidance to disaster responders and this manual is currently being revised in light of experiences in the field. Presently both Brookings and the Protection Cluster Working Group are organizing training sessions for government officials responsible for disaster response as well as non-governmental organizations. Such training is necessary in order to ensure that a rights-based approach to disaster response is incorporated into all phases of operations.

Natural Disasters, Human Rights and the Role of NHRIs

National Human Rights Institutions are well-placed to play a role in upholding human rights standards for those affected by natural disasters. Last year, some of you participated in a session lead by Joyce Leader who was working with us, to explore some of the ways that NHRIs can become involved in monitoring displacement. I’d like to share with you some of the experiences of NHRIs in another part of the world – Asia – to see if their experiences could be helpful to you in Africa. At its meeting in September 2001, the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions expressed interest in developing their capacity to promote and respect the human rights of IDPs. In March 2005, following the December 2004 tsunamis, the NHRIs met again and agreed on the need to develop a common methodology for their role with regard to IDPs in the context of natural disasters. In August 2005, the members of the Asia Pacific Forum welcomed draft guidelines which were not introduced as binding instruments, but rather as good practices which might be useful to NHRIs experiencing natural disasters.

I’d like to share some of these guidelines with you.

Strengthening NHRI capacity:

There are many strategies to strengthen NHRIs’ capacities. Immediate strategies consist of appointing an IDP focal point, establishing links with regional areas, training and providing relevant documents about human rights issues faced by IDPs to staff member and integrating local legal and IDP experts. During an emergency response to a natural disaster, NHRIs should develop a comprehensive approach to the promotion and protection of human rights and establish short team offices in the affected areas. After the immediate effects of the disaster subside, NHRIs should establish a strategy to address IDP concerns with all relevant sections of the NHRI.

Working with government:

In order for NHRIs to work effectively with the government during a disaster, before a disaster takes place NHRIs should disseminate the Guiding Principles to government agencies, advocate for the ratification of all relevant international human rights and humanitarian instruments and identify gaps in the laws and recommend reforms. While there is an emergency response, organize a public hearing, ensure the government has a rights-based approach to the provision of aid and work with the government to ensure they reissue identity papers and other documents. In the long term NHRIs must encourage the government to develop an effective rights-based policy, meet with government agencies engaged in work with IDPs to gather accurate information, and recommend that the government establish a formal taskforce to share information.

Working with UN, civil society and other non-state actors:

Communication with the UN, civil society and other non-state actors should begin before a natural disaster takes place. While working with these groups it is essential to disseminate the Guiding Principles, advise on the risks to the human rights of IDPs and seek advice from the UN and other relevant actors. During an emergency response, NHRIs must ensure the participation of IDPs in all processes and engage both state and non-state actors about the risks face by IDPs. After a disaster NHRIs must monitor the state of IDPs, contribute to UN monitoring mechanisms and help with rehabilitation, compensation and reconstruction for IDPs.


To increase awareness among local populations the Guiding Principles should be translated into all relevant languages and dialects and distributed. During a natural disaster it is imperative to develop a public information strategy to raise awareness for human rights issues for IDPs, as well as go to the affected areas to meet with IDPs, international and national NGOs and the government to determine the effects of the disaster. There are many different long term projects that NHRIs can take part in to increase awareness including, providing and disseminating on-going coverage of human rights issues caused by natural disasters, integrating the human rights implications of internal displacement into training, participating in international conferences, workshops, and seminars, and stressing the need for a rights-based approach to humanitarian assistance.

Complaint handling:

In order to effectively handle complaints during a natural disaster, NHRIs must establish relationships with all complaint hearing mechanisms in various communities and ensure that these complaint hearing mechanisms have the flexibility to function throughout an emergency. In an emergency response it is important for NHRIs to publicize complaint handling functions to the IDP population and help seek out complaints from the IDP population. In the long term, NHRIs should take part in court proceedings and advocate for the prosecution of individuals that violate human rights.

Regional Cooperation:

Internal displacement is not only an issue internal to a country but the entire region. Cooperation between NHRIs should be multilateral through information sharing and the organization of seminars and workshops.

For discussion:

  • To what extent do these guidelines, developed in Asia, make sense for Africa?
  • What do you see as the main barriers to your more effective engagement with IDPs and with Natural Disasters?

National Human Rights Institutions are uniquely placed to play a role in ensuring that the human rights of those affected by natural disasters are promoted. You have the expertise in human rights principles and the mandate to protect human rights. You are rooted in your own local and national context and thus may have a better view of what is needed and what is possible than international actors. While specific national contexts vary and different kinds of disasters require different responses, the need to uphold human rights in emergency situations seems to be a constant. We look forward to hearing from you about the kinds of natural disasters you have lived through and your views on possible actions which you could take to ensure that the human rights of the victims of natural disasters are upheld.

Thank you.

[1] Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of those who survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Mariner Books, 2006.

[2] Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford University Press, 1983. Michael Massing, “Does Democracy Avoid Famine?” New York Times, March 1, 2003.


[4] IASC, Operational Guidelines, op.cit.

[5] IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, Washington: Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2006, p. 8.

[6] IASC, Operational Guidelines, op.cit. pg. 7.

[7] IASC, Operational Guidelines, op.cit. pg. 9

[8] Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis, “Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”, Institute for Southern Studies, January, 2008. pg. 13

[9] “’Never again,’ again,” New York Times editorial, 20 September 2008,