Radix - Human Rights

Go to:

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) ReliefWeb: Madagascar: political row stops aid from reaching flood victims

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) The Hurricane Mitch: Beyond Natural Catastrophe. Human Rights Commission 1999

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) United Nations Chronicle: The Chronicle Essay: Food Trade and Food Rights by George Kent http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2002/issue1/0102p27.html

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISASTERS: Does a rights approach reduce vulnerability? by John Handmer

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) Let Them Eat Risk? Wealth, Rights, and Disaster Vulnerability by James K. Boyce

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) The human right to disaster mitigation and relief

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) Is Safety from Natural Hazards a Human Right?

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) George Kent 25.1.01

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) 'Putting floors under the vulnerable': disaster reduction as a strategy to reduce poverty by Yasemin AYSAN (opens in another page)

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) REDUCCION DE DESASTRES COM O UN DERECHO HUMANO Preparado por Helena Molin Valdés (opens in another page)

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) World Disasters Report 2000, Chapter 8: Towards an international disaster response law (link to pdf download)

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) Disasters: What the United Nations and its World Can Do by Ben Wisner

(to be published in Environmental Hazards journal)
George Kent
University of Hawai'i
January 30, 2001

International human rights law does not speak explicitly about the right to protection and relief from disasters, but it is clearly implied. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in article 3, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person." Article 25 says:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, or old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Disasters are conditions under which an individual may face "circumstances beyond his control". The right to an adequate standard of living is not suspended in disasters.

These rights are further elaborated in subsequent human rights agreements, particularly the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is fully understood that national governments may have limited capacity in relation to such rights. Nevertheless, no matter how meager their resources may be, all governments have an obligation to take positive action to protect lives, and to assure an adequate standard of living, not only in normal times but also in conditions of acute crises. There are many things that can be done at low cost. Poverty can never be accepted as an excuse for total inaction.

Earthquakes and other sorts of disasters are often treated as if the current one was the first one. Governments have a positive obligation to prepare for such eventualties. Natural events such as earthquakes or volcano eruptions may not be preventable, but their impacts on human well-being certainly can be mitigated. Mitigation means not only that buildings should be strengthened or kept out of danger zones altogether. It also means that governments must have plans in place for dealing with catastrophic events. There must be organization and training of personnel, evacuation plans, emergency medical facilities, arrangements for providing food and water, etc.

The Sphere Project (www.sphereproject.org) has made a major contribution to setting out standards for humanitarian assistance, as summarized in its Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. Other specialists now need to develop comparable standards for disaster mitigation, both within countries and internationally. This work would draw on the valuable information that has been assembled by the United Nations International Decade for Disaster Reduction. The international community should articulate basic minimum standards, but countries would be free to develop higher standards for internal use, according to their capacity.
Standards alone are not enough. Disaster protection is not only about science; it is also about the development of appropriate institutional arrangements so that we can make the best possible use of our scientific information. There need to be appropriate disaster mitigation and relief agencies in place, and solid motivation as well.
As a matter of principle, we should begin with the recognition that all people have a human right to protection from disasters, and consequently governments have an obligation to provide that protection. This means that in addition to establishing standards based on these rights, well-designed institutions of accountability need to be established. Basic disaster relief is not about charity. The human right to disaster protection means there are some services to which people are entitled. There should be domestic and international agencies that are capable of calling national governments to account if their preparations are not adequate.

The task now is to articulate these entitlements and to design the institutional arrangements that would assure their realization. The long-term objective would be to establish an international agreement that would articulate the standards and establish the arrangements to which national governments are willing to commit themselves. Like other human rights, the right to disaster protection should be based on agreement, and not be imposed from above.

Civil society organizations (non-governmental organizations) could launch the effort by proposing a draft international agreement with regard to disaster relief. Technical experts could study the issues and, on the basis of their consensus, propose a draft International Treaty on Disaster Mitigation and Relief. They could then bring this draft to national governments through the United Nations system. The intergovernmental negotiations process could then be launched. It might take a decade or more before it would be ready for adoption by the United Nations General Assembly and then for signature and ratification by the nations of the world.

In the interim, it might be appropriate for concerned civil society organizations to propose an International Code of Standards on Disaster Prevention and Relief, together with appropriate institutional means for helping governments to meet those standards. This code would spell out the obligations of governments to prepare for and respond to disasters, and it would also address the conditions under which international assistance should be provided. This code could be made available for endorsement by relevant civil society organizations, government agencies, and international organizations.

These civil society organizations could create their own inspectorate, to function on an advisory basis, until more formal international arrangements can be put in place. They could operate on the basis of "constructive dialogue" with the governments of the world, in a manner comparable to that used by the United Nations treaty bodies that are responsible for monitoring the major international human rights agreements. This would be a feasible approach toward assuring that the human right to disaster mitigation and relief is realized everywhere.

As in all human rights work, the core issue is whether governments are willing to make commitments based on recognition that protection is one of the fundamental tasks of governance. The governments will not take the initiative on this; they must be pushed.

Is Safety from Natural Hazards a Human Right?
By George Kent, University of Hawaii ( http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kent )
[in response to Ben's messages]

Ben's observations in response to the El Salvador earthquake and landslides and the subsequent rescue efforts are surprising. I am not a disaster person, so I naively expected that there would be more systematic preparations and responses. Why is it that earthquakes are so often treated as if the current one was the first one?

Are there agreed international standards for disaster preparedness? Are there any international agencies that inspect for the adequacy of preparation?

As a human rights advocate, I would begin with the principle that all people have a right to protection from disasters, and consequently governments have an obligation to protect them. This means that in addition to establishing standards based on these rights, there ought to be some well?designed institutions of accountability. There should be some international agencies that are capable of calling national governments to account if their preparations are not adequate.

If this has not yet been achieved, civil society organizations (non?governmental organizations) could contribute by proposing draft international agreements with regard to disaster relief, and they could create their own inspectorate.

George Kent (25.1.01):

I totally agree with Ben's advocacy for an international treaty that would set out standards for disaster protection, based on the premise that people have a right to such protection, and governments have a corresponding obligation to provide such protection.

Ben points out, in his draft on "Disasters and Human Rights", that "a treaty would require thousands of experts to work out the low?cost, minimum practices required to avoid such tragic loss." However, let us be clear. Much of that work by technical experts would have to be done BEFORE agreement on a treaty could be obtained.

It would be premature to appeal to national governments to establish such an agreement. To begin this process, it is the technical experts??people like you??who would have to begin proposing sensible global standards and the draft language for a treaty. This would be a standards development project done primarily by civil society organizations (nongovernmental organizations) working at their own collective initiative. When they have something of substance prepared, they could bring it to national governments, probably through the UN system. Then the intergovernmental negotiations process would be launch, and it might take a decade or more before coming to any sort of conclusion.

While contemplating a formal international treaty in the long term, in the interim it might be more appropriate to propose something like an International Code of Conduct on Disaster Prevention and Relief. After it is developed, it could be made available for endorsement by relevant civil society organizations, distinguished individuals, and government agencies of different sorts. This would be a feasible approach toward the development of globally accepted standards of service.

There is already a considerable literature on the right to international humanitarian assistance, as indicated in my paper at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kent/assistance3.doc It is only logical that if we hope to establish international standards, and a right to international assistance, we should also have standards that should be met by national
and local governments in relation to disasters of different kinds.

Governments are followers, not leaders. It is not governments but people like you who will have to initiate this process.

Aloha, George

Back to the top

Radix: the source or origin; the root
Quick look up at Dictionary.com

For questions regarding this website, contact: maureen.fordham@northumbria.ac.uk | This page was last updated on 08 April 2003