Protecting Persons Affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters

November 22, 2006


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Natural disasters,[1] i.e. the consequences of events triggered by natural hazards that overwhelm local response capacity and seriously affect the social and economic development of a region, are traditionally seen as situations creating challenges and problems mainly of a humanitarian nature. Less attention has been devoted to human rights protection which aslo needs to be provided in this particular context.

The tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes which hit parts of Asia and the Americas in 2004/2005 ahve highlighted the need to be attentive to the multiple human rights challenges that persons affected by such disasters may face. All too often their human rights are not sufficiently taken into account. 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. The affected populations are most often forced to leave their homes or places of residence because of the destruction of houses and shelter by volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, drought, landslides, earthquakes and tornados. Thus, a high number of persons also become internally displaced as a result of such disasters or the fear of future damages.

Experience has shown that, while patterns of discrimination and disregard for economic, social and cultural rights may already emerge during the emergency phase of a disaster, the longer the displacement situation lasts, the greater the risk of human rights violations.

Normally, situations affecting the human rights of persons affected by natural disasters are not consciously planned and implemented, but result from inappropriate policies or simple neglect. The vulnerability of the people affected often is the result of inadequate planning and disaster preparedness. As stated by the Secretary General, “The risks and potential for disasters associated with natural hazards are largely shaped by the prevailing levels of vulnerability and the effectiveness of measures taken to prvent, mitigate and prepare for disasters.”[2] Once the people have been affected by a disaster, however, they often encounter further challenges to the full realization of their rights. These challenges could be avoided if the relevant human rights guarantees were taken into account, at the very outset, by national as well as international actors.

Human rights are the legal underpinning of all humanitarian work pertaining to natural disasters. There is no other legal framework to guide such activities, especially in areas where there is no armed conflict. If humanitarian assistance is not based on a human rights framework, it risks having too narrow a focus, and cannot integrate all the basic needs of the victims into a holistic planning process. There is also the risk that factors important for recovery and reconstruction later on will be overloked. Furthermore, neglecting the human rights o fthose affected by natural disasters effectively means no account will be taken of the fact that such people do not live in a legal vacuum. They live in countries with laws, rules and institutions that should protect their rights.

States are directly responsible for respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of their citizens and other persons on their territory or under their jurisdiction. Whereas national humanitarian organizations are bound by their national laws, international humanitarian organizations, while not directly bound by international human rights treaties, accept that human rights underpin all of their actions. Therefore, they should do their utmost to ensure that these rights are protected—even beyond the strict wording of their mandates and in the interest of the people directly affected. All humanitarian organizations are under the obligation not to promote, actively participate in, or in any other manner contribute to, or endorse policies or activities, which do or can lead to human rights violations by States. The challenge often is how to apply these rules in an operational context, not least given the many humanitarian and human rights dilemmas potentially faced in sitautions of humanitarian disasters.

There are guidelines on humanitarian action in emergencies including situations of natural disaster. There are also standards on protecting human rights in situations of armed conflict, internal displacement and refugee situations. Guidance is lacking, however, on how to protect the human rights of individuals affected by natural disasters.

These Operational Guidelines are addressed to intergovernmental and non-governmental humanitarian actors when they are called upon to become active just before or in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The Operational Guidelines do not list the rights of persons as enshrined in international law. Rather, they focus on what humanitarian actors should do in order to implement a rights-based approach to humanitarian action in the context of natural disasters.[3] They call on humanitarian actors to look beyond their core mandate and to have a holistic vision of the needs of the people they have been asked to serve. While these Guidelines have been drafted with the consequences of natural disasters in mind, most of them are also relevant in preparation for or after other kinds of disasters[4] have struck.

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[1] The term “natural” disaster is used for ease. It is important to understand, however, that the magnitude of the consequences of sudden natural hazards is a direct result of the way individuals and societies relate to threats originating from natural hazards. The magnitude of the consequences is, thus, determined by human action, or the lack thereof.

[2] Report of the Secretary General to the General Assembly “On international cooperation on humanitarian assistance in the field of natural disasters, from relief to development”, A/60/227.

[3] Currently there are processes trying to address additional State responsibilities in the context of natural disaster relief, which run parallel to the immediate need of the humanitarian agencies for guidance.

[4] Such as disasters that have set on slowly, e.g. drought, or so-called “man-made” disasters.