Protection in Natural Disasters

Elizabeth Ferris and
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University
Diane Paul
Diane Paul Human Rights Watch

September 22, 2009


People affected by natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other calamities often face urgent protection needs that may not be immediately visible to humanitarian actors caught up in trying to provide water, food, shelter, medical care and other lifesaving assistance. However, as the devastating tsunami in 2004 and subsequent disasters have demonstrated, measures to protect people from discrimination, exploitation, and other forms of human rights violations are as important as the provision of food and water. This paper provides an overview of protection challenges confronting those affected by natural disasters, drawing on examples presented at two workshops organized by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement; the first in Asia (in partnership with the All India Disaster Management Institute) and the second in Central America, in collaboration with the Coordination Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America (Centro de Coordinación para la Prevención de los Desastres Naturales en América Central) and CONRED, National Coordinating Agency for the Reduction of Disasters (Coordinadaora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres).

The paper begins by discussing some of the differences and similarities in the protection of people affected by natural disasters and by conflict, delineates some of the obstacles to effective protection, and describes a framework for protection response, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Operational Guidelines on Human Rights in Natural Disasters.[1] Using the categorization of rights in the Operational Guidelines, common protection problems are noted, together with examples of possible responses, drawn from both the Operational Guidelines and interventions by national and international organizations in the field.

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[1] IASC, Protecting Persons Affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, 2006, available: The Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement also developed a draft manual on the Operational Guidelines to provide more concrete guidance to disaster responders and is currently being revised in light of experiences in the field, available: