Time for the United States to Honor International Standards in Emergencies

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

September 9, 2005

The Congressional Black Caucus is right. The more than one million Americans so painfully uprooted by Hurricane Katrina are not refugees as the media often mistakenly call them. Rather, they are internally displaced persons—IDPs for short. A refugee is someone who flees across borders because of persecution, and once over the border, benefits from a well-established international system of protection and assistance. For those displaced internally, their governments have the main responsibility to assure their well being and security.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, introduced into the United Nations in 1998, are international standards for persons forcibly uprooted from their homes by conflict and natural disaster who remain within their own countries. Given the disastrously inadequate initial performance in dealing with this catastrophe, our government would do well to become familiar with these guidelines both for the current rescue effort and for future emergencies.

The guidelines, in the words of the UN Secretary-General, are “the basic international norm for protection” of internally displaced persons. Although not a binding treaty, UN resolutions regularly call them a “standard.” The US Agency for International Development calls them “a useful tool and framework” in its 2004 policy on assistance to internally displaced persons in foreign countries.

It is now time for the U.S. government to apply these standards to displaced Americans here at home. The UN Secretary-General’s Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kalin, is available to advise governments on how best to put the guidelines into practice. To begin with, governments have a responsibility to prevent or mitigate the conditions that lead to displacement. In natural disasters, this means heeding early warnings, developing adequately funded and effective disaster preparedness plans at the local, state and national levels, ensuring that there are means to carry out the response, and evacuating people who cannot leave on their own and are in harm’s way. Such steps should be seen as the fundamental right of populations living in high-risk areas. When public officials fail to take reasonable measures to protect them, claims for compensation need to be considered.

In distributing aid, fairness is essential. Discrimination on the basis of race, color, national, ethnic or social origin, social status, political opinion, disability or similar criteria must be prohibited. This means that the poor, who in the Gulf Coast are mainly black and Hispanic, should also have received help in being evacuated, while the most vulnerable—children, expectant mothers, the disabled, sick, and elderly—should have been attended to with the least possible delay. A review process should be set up to hear charges of discriminatory treatment and ensure remedial action.

The guidelines also address protecting and assisting the victims of disasters. Those uprooted have the right to expect to receive humanitarian aid in the form of essential food, potable water, clothing, medical services, sanitation, and basic shelter and housing as well as assistance later in rebuilding their lives. They are to be protected from acts of violence, rape, and lawlessness. When governments are not able to fulfill these responsibilities, they must promptly call upon the international community for assistance. In extreme situations, if governments refuse outside help yet fail to fulfill their commitments, the international community has the responsibility to intercede.

Consultation with the displaced is of cardinal importance. It may not be practical in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but in the recovery and reconstruction phases, when people begin to decide whether to return to ravaged Gulf Coast areas or resettle, and homes, businesses and local economies begin to be rebuilt, consultative mechanisms are essential. Exclusion from the decisions that affect their lives will not only heighten helplessness but undermine the effectiveness of the aid provided. The government must also help the displaced to recover, where possible, their property and possessions or provide or assist the persons in obtaining compensation or some form of reparation.

The UN guidelines are a valuable tool for federal, state, and local government officials. They are being adopted in one form or another by a growing number of countries. Were the United States to follow the guidelines, it would find itself on firmer ground for reacting to the current emergency and planning for future ones.