ReliefWeb: Madagascar: political row stops aid from reaching flood
The Hurricane Mitch: Beyond Natural Catastrophe. Human Rights
United Nations Chronicle: The Chronicle Essay: Food
Trade and Food Rights by George Kent http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2002/issue1/0102p27.html
HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISASTERS: Does
a rights approach reduce vulnerability? by John Handmer
Let Them Eat
Risk? Wealth, Rights, and Disaster Vulnerability by James K. Boyce
human right to disaster mitigation and relief
from Natural Hazards a Human Right?
George Kent 25.1.01
'Putting floors under the vulnerable':
disaster reduction as a strategy to reduce poverty by Yasemin AYSAN (opens
in another page)
REDUCCION DE DESASTRES COM O UN DERECHO
HUMANO Preparado por Helena Molin Valdés (opens in another page)
World Disasters Report 2000, Chapter 8: Towards an international
disaster response law (link to pdf
Disasters: What the United Nations and its
World Can Do by Ben Wisner
THE HUMAN RIGHT TO
DISASTER MITIGATION AND RELIEF
(to be published in Environmental Hazards journal)
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,
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
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
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.
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.
Back to the top