Relief and Rights Are Needed to Respond to South Asia’s Floods

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

August 13, 2007

While media coverage of Minneapolis’ collapsed bridge and of miners trapped underground in Utah have been extensive, other tragic developments have gone almost unnoticed in the US press. Almost twenty million people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh were displaced two weeks ago by massive flooding. A few weeks before that, millions were displaced in Pakistan by a cyclone. As is usually the case in natural disasters, the poor are particularly hard-hit. While monsoon-induced flooding is a normal part of life in this part of the world, the scale of the floods and the human displacement this year are worse than usual. Much worse. In fact, in some areas, this may be the worst flooding in recent history. Given the fact that climate change seems to be affecting weather systems worldwide, this scale of flooding and displacement may be a harbinger of things to come.

While the humanitarian community is mobilizing to provide immediate relief – as it should – to those displaced by the rising waters, this isn’t only a humanitarian issue, it is also a human rights issue. The governments of the affected countries have the primary responsibility to uphold the rights of their people— civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. But international organizations and relief agencies also have the responsibility to ensure that their programs respect the human rights of those affected by the disaster and not just feed them. If humanitarian assistance is not based on a human rights framework, it risks having too narrow a focus and ignoring factors important for recovery and reconstruction later on.

In June of last year, the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee adopted Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters. These guidelines represent the first attempt to provide guidance to relief agencies on how to protect the human rights of individuals affected by natural disasters.

The guidelines provide that “adequate food, water and sanitation, shelter, clothing and essential health services should be provided to persons affected by natural disasters” and if not available in sufficient quantities, aid should be provided first to those most in need. Moreover, relief assistance should be delivered in a non-discriminatory manner. These are basic tenets of humanitarian response, but those affected by natural disasters also have a right to easily accessible information about that humanitarian assistance and to be consulted in a meaningful way.

They have the right to be protected against violence, including gender-based violence, which is unfortunately not uncommon when law and order breaks down. To the extent possible, displaced families should remain together and measures implemented in the early days to re-establish contacts between family members separated by the disaster. And for those who do not survive, appropriate measures should be taken to collect and identify the mortal remains of those deceased and cremation of unidentified bodies should be avoided.

People who have been displaced by natural disasters should have the chance to freely decide whether they want to return to their homes, or remain in the area to which they have been displaced or settle in another part of the country. These are basic human rights of internally displaced persons as set out in the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement.

Amid reports that desperate people are angrily demanding immediate assistance and expressing their frustration at the slow response of the government, the guidelines note that “mechanisms should be established to enable communities to give feedback and raise complaints or grievances on the disaster relief, recovery, and reconstruction response. Efforts should be made to ensure that women and persons with special needs – e.g. children, older persons, persons with disabilities, single-headed households, and members of religious and ethnic minority groups or indigenous peoples – are specially consulted and can participate in all aspects of the disaster response.”

These are high standards for first responders facing logistical difficulties of accessing needy people in remote, water-sogged areas. They were standards that were not met in the US response to Hurricane Katrina two years ago. But as Jan Egeland, former Emergency Relief Coordinator and Walter Kälin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons say in their introduction to the Operational Principles, “human rights are as much a part of the lives of the people we are called upon to assist and to protect as are their needs for food and shelter.” Human rights aren’t an ‘add on’ to humanitarian assistance, but a fundamental underlying principle without which assistance simply will not be effective.