On the Record

The Earthquake Recovery Process in Haiti

Walter Kälin

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The year has begun with a human tragedy that has touched all of us. Our minds and hearts are with the Haitian people, who have had to endure more suffering in their long and proud history. I would like to express my condolences to all those who have lost relatives or loved ones in the earthquake.

The cause of this suffering was a tremendous earthquake. Natural disasters and in particular the way we respond to them have clear human rights implications. We need to be attentive to the multiple human rights challenges that victims of these disasters face. This Special Session of the Human Rights Council should focus on how to address these challenges.

I would like to thank the President of the Council for the initiative to invite me to participate in this Special Session. In cooperation with United Nations agencies and other stakeholders, my mandate, working on the basis of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other relevant standards, has carried out extensive work on the links between human rights and natural disasters. In close collaboration with humanitarian agencies, the mandate developed Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters[i] as well as a Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons[ii] that, inter alia, provide guidance for recovery processes in the aftermath of natural disasters in a way that may also be relevant for non-displaced populations.

Several lessons learned from other disasters are particularly relevant to the current situation and should be kept in mind while structuring the national and international response to this catastrophe.

1. Disasters exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and human rights concerns

Natural disasters aggravate existing patterns of discrimination and power imbalances within a society. Non-discrimination in access to and distribution of assistance is a key human rights principle and a major challenge in post-disaster contexts. For instance, women (especially if they are single heads of households), children, elderly persons, persons with disabilities and persons belonging to socially marginalized groups might find themselves excluded from equal access to humanitarian assistance unless due attention is paid to organizing fair systems of distribution.

In addition, women and children often experience increased vulnerability to sexual and other forms of violence and exploitation, especially in collective centers or when separated from their families as a consequence of disasters and other humanitarian crises. Children risk a loss of access to education and exposure to multiple forms of exploitation. Orphaned, unaccompanied and separated children are particularly vulnerable. Experience shows that such risks increase the longer the humanitarian crisis lasts.

People living with HIV/AIDS and other socially marginalized groups might face social pressure and discrimination that can result in denial of access to or exclusion from collective shelters or other assistance measures. The special needs of persons with disabilities or traumatized persons are often also neglected.

Such an approach would treat affected people as autonomous actors and rights holders, who are consulted on all decisions affecting them, a measure that helps to avoid many problems. Consultative mechanisms must avoid reflecting existing power imbalances and include women, people with special needs, and internally displaced persons and members of the communities hosting them. Independent and transparent monitoring of humanitarian assistance efforts can also contribute to ensuring that all populations in need have equal access to the assistance and protection they need

2. A careful balance should be struck between the duty to protect human lives and the physical integrity of persons against secondary natural hazards and other human rights obligations.

In post-disaster situations, national authorities have an obligation to protect the life and physical integrity of persons staying in areas where they are exposed to imminent dangers as a result of secondary natural hazards. In extreme cases, this may call for temporary evacuation or even permanent relocation—measures that are currently being considered in relation to certain sites in Port-au-Prince.

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Evacuations and relocations must be based on reliable risk assessments carried out by qualified experts. Affected individuals and communities should be informed about why and how they are being moved and what support they can expect at the evacuation or relocation site. They should also be consulted with on matters such as whether and how they will be moved. Representative groups of the affected individuals and community, including women and other potentially marginalized groups, can be given the opportunity, for instance, to go and see the areas to which they will be relocated. Evacuations and relocations must be carried out without discrimination; distinctions made between individuals or groups of individuals are only permissible to take into account special protection needs.

Measures should be implemented to ensure that the specific needs of particularly vulnerable persons, such as individuals with disabilities or elderly persons without family support are addressed in the evacuation and that families remain together during this process.

The protection of housing, land, property and other possessions left behind is also a key issue that must be considered in planning evacuation processes. In particular, people who may only have informal land titles or who rely on their uncontested possession of the land alone should be guaranteed the right to reclaim their land once it is safe to do so.

Forced relocations can only be a measure of last resort that must be foreseen by law and only carried out when and as long as absolutely necessary in order to protect life and limb of those at risk.

3. Protecting basic economic and social rights of disaster victims requires immediate assistance as well as early recovery measures, which need to be planned, funded and initiated during the current emergency phase.

People affected by disasters, whether they have been displaced or remain in the remnants of their homes, have very urgent humanitarian needs: potable water, food, housing, sanitation, health services etc. The humanitarian community and many States from around the world, in close coordination with the Government of Haiti, have provided an impressive response to this enormous disaster. Additionally, many private individuals have been generous in funding emergency assistance for Haiti.


However, at this point and during the coming weeks, emergency assistance is not enough. Experience from many previous disaster settings has shown that people often find themselves in the worst living situations six to twelve months after the disaster, when emergency funding has stopped. This is primarily because early recovery measures were not initiated during the emergency phase. This can be avoided if donors do not shortsightedly restrict their assistance to life saving measures only and invest in early recovery now.

Among early recovery priorities are the re-establishment of local governance structures, state protection institutions (such as police, local courts etc.) and the most basic services (schools, basic healthcare, water and sanitation), but also reissuance of lost documentation. Most importantly, funding should be immediately made available to establish job creation and livelihood programmes, including cash for work programs. Doing so avoids the emergence of aid dependency syndromes and allows people to re-establish their lives in dignity and to enjoy basic economic, social and cultural rights. I would like to emphasize that such programmes also expedite post-disaster reconstruction, stimulate spontaneous recovery activities of affected communities, and help avoid threats to security and stability that emerge when large numbers of young people find themselves in desperate situations without a viable perspective for their futures.

4. People who share burdens by helping those directly affected by disaster must not be neglected.

We already see large numbers of internally displaced persons seeking refuge with families and friends in the countryside. Many others will have been taken in by host families within Port-au-Prince. I am genuinely impressed by the solidarity among the Haitians and heartened to see that so many people have welcomed  displaced persons into their homes. We should not forget that their meager resources are rapidly absorbed and that the capacity of local institutions, such as schools or health centers, are strained. It is important that assistance measures do not neglect host communities and host families, thereby inadvertently discriminating against them.

5. Durable solutions offer the best form of protection for those internally displaced or otherwise affected by disaster.

It will take a long time for the people of Haiti to reconstruct their houses, regain their livelihoods, and rebuild their lives. Supporting them in this gradual process to find durable solutions requires a long-term commitment on our part. It is absolutely essential that recovery strategies do not simply focus on rebuilding infrastructure and houses.  Rather, protection must be recognized and robustly funded as an integral part of recovery efforts. Without such a focus there is a risk that when the television cameras move on to other world events calling for attention, people affected by this disaster, particularly the most vulnerable, will continue to be deprived of the enjoyment of their human rights and we will not have shown that our concern for the Haitian people was not just a fleeting emotion, but based on a genuine commitment to uphold their dignity and respect for their human rights.

Thank you for your attention.

[i] See e.g. my report on the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters (A/HRC/10/13/Add.1) and Affected by Natural Disasters – IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, adopted by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on 9 June 2006 (http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/iasc/pageloader.aspx?page=content-products-default)