Tsunami Envoy Clinton – Don’t Forget Human Rights

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

May 3, 2005

If former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations’ new Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, is to succeed in his new mission, he will need to make human rights protection central to his dealings with South Asian governments.

Tsunami aid programs will neither be sustainable nor contribute to long-term stability unless they are based on fairness to all. Currently, Dalits (“untouchables”) in India claim that their villages have not been restored as quickly as those of higher castes. In Sri Lanka, the national human rights commission is examining charges of discrimination in aid to Muslims in the east and Tamils in the south. There also have been disputes over aid amounts distributed to government and rebel held areas, while in Indonesia, some tsunami survivors suspected of having links with the rebels in Aceh claim to have been denied aid by the Indonesian military. In Thailand, the government has neglected the thousands of unregistered Burmese migrants living in Thai coastal areas who were made homeless by the tsunami.

Full access to tsunami victims must also be assured. Burma’s military government minimized the extent of the damage and has failed to request international help for its survivors. Indonesia denies entry to parts of Aceh and sent the UN High Commissioner for Refugees packing before completion of its $60 million plan to build up to 35,000 homes in Aceh for the 400,000 made homeless.

Protection of land and property is another area the Special Envoy should scrutinize. Many landmarks and records were wiped out by the tsunami, and long-standing residents who survived may not have held formal title. In some countries, 70 to 90 percent of the survivors lost their identity documents, making it easy for authorities and corporations to seize property, rationalizing it on security or other grounds. While some governments have been working on registering people and making efforts to replace lost documents, there are also reports of land grabs.

The Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Walter Kälin, in a new report,1 calls upon government bodies to:

  • review property claims,
  • ensure that non-traditional forms of ownership are recognized,
  • assist people who lost their land and livelihoods, and
  • guarantee that women do not face discrimination in regaining their homes and property.

He also calls for non-discrimination in the creation of buffer zones in coastal areas. In some zones, it is reported that corporations will be able to construct tourist facilities but that local residents may not be allowed to return to reconstruct their homes and fishermen not permitted to regain their livelihoods. Consultation and clarity of information will be essential as well as monitoring of the zones to ensure fairness.

At the same time, preferential treatment should not be given to tsunami survivors. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans and Indonesians earlier uprooted by ethnic conflict still live in camps and substandard shelters. They could begin to resent the large sums collected for the housing and allowances of tsunami survivors. Tensions with civil war victims will complicate rehabilitation and reintegration.

Insistence upon the civilian character of camps for displaced persons is another way to promote stability in the recovery process. While armed forces can play an important role in rescue and humanitarian response, the continued military control of camps and humanitarian aid in Aceh can be abusive. Indonesian troops stationed near displaced persons camps have aroused fears that the camps are being used to restrict people suspected of rebel sympathies and will become military targets. Children in such settings risk recruitment into fighting forces, while reports are on the rise of displaced women being sexually harassed by military around the camps.

National human rights commissions offer a promising way to deal with protection concerns. These quasi-governmental bodies can monitor the treatment of tsunami survivors, receive and act upon complaints, and advise governments when their policies and laws discriminate. In March, the national commissions of India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand met in Bangkok with Kälin to discuss how to address human rights problems arising from the tsunami. But setting up national and regional monitoring systems will require encouragement and resources. So too will the rebuilding of businesses, local economies, villages and homes free of political, economic, ethnic or gender based discrimination. Disasters can provide opportunities to reverse long-standing patterns of discrimination and ethnic conflict. By addressing human rights as well as emergency relief issues Mr. Clinton can create a strong foundation for recovery.

1Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Situations of Natural Disaster: A Working Visit to Asia by the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Walter Kälin, 27 February 5 March 2005. Available at: