other human rights pieces
HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISASTERS: Does a rights
approach reduce vulnerability?
Risk and Community Safety Research Initiative
Prepared for the Annual Hazards Workshop, University
of Colorado, Boulder. July 2001.
Awareness of human rights
Widespread awareness of human rights and of the value of a rights approach is a
characteristic of our era. The trend now is to give rights an explicit legislative basis,
and to incorporate them into a wide range of agreements and policy including commercial
contracts and labour agreements. Many major commercial entities and communities are
committing themselves to upholding basic human rights, for example through joining the
United Nations sponsored Global Compact (www.unglobalcompact.org). Recently, the city of Melbourne joined the
Compact making human rights part of the city's vision.
Our awareness of human rights has been greatly enhanced by globalisation of the media and
the spread of North Atlantic notions of democracy. To some commentators this reflects a
resumption of the US led post World War II project - interrupted for 40 years by the cold
war (Cately, 1997). This project included the spread of human rights expressed through
democratic institutions of the US model and global free trade and financial systems.
Global trade and finance are formally represented by the Bretton Woods institutions of the
IMF and World Bank, and by GATT (now the World Trade Organisation or WTO). Today, the
concept of rights is being extended well beyond individual freedom of expression, voting
and trade, to encompass basic needs such as food, housing, employment opportunities, a
clean environment and increasingly gender and cultural rights, and perhaps safety.
Although the European Union has promoted the broader concept, it is these newer rights
that are the most strongly contested by many groups and governments in both rich and poor
countries. Through groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the
International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, and the environmental
justice movement, our awareness of rights extends to knowledge of their contested nature
and widespread abuse.
But the processes of globalisation - in particular economic globalisation - have created
losers too as a result of enhanced competition for capital and trade and the now easy
relocation of commercial activity. Some argue that these processes are leading to the
creation of many more vulnerable communities worldwide through for example loss of
livelihoods or environmental degradation. Increasing violence in many parts of the world
has also helped make many communities vulnerable to all types of crises including natural
hazards. For the purposes of this paper vulnerability is considered to be a function of
social and economic well-being (see for example Blaikie et al, 1996), and is linked with
equitable and sustainable development (for example, see Mileti, 1999).
As someone interested in hazard management I see that my task is to contribute to
vulnerability reduction. In this context, key questions are: does a human rights approach
help reduce vulnerability? and are there other proven approaches? This note introduces the
rights approach in the context of disasters and highlights some relevant issues.
Approaches to vulnerability reduction that are not rights based (or at least that are not
explicitly based on human rights law), exist and have proven reasonably effective. As this
paper concerns a rights approach, I will simply outline these here.
I recognise that there is intense debate about almost every aspect of the concept of
vulnerability, and that we are all vulnerable somehow. Nevertheless, I would argue that
most people in rich countries are now much less vulnerable to so called
"natural" hazards than they were a few decades ago (although we may consider
ourselves more vulnerable to other problems) - as measured for instance by the key
outcomes of life expectancy and health, and by the availability of crisis support. This is
not a result of an explicit rights approach. Instead, it reflects the continual expansion
of health and safety knowledge and regulation, livelihood security, and the personal
accumulation of wealth and various forms of "insurance" - in addition to the
political consensus that supports these trends. Of course, these overall figures disguise
inequalities which appear to be increasing rapidly (UNDP Human Development Report 2000),
with implications for the rights of those becoming relatively poorer.
How does a rights approach help?
A rights approach could help reduce vulnerability if the approach made reduction a legal
requirement. Existing human rights, and rights related, law appears to cover many of the
components of vulnerability. In addition, long established international humanitarian law
sets out obligations in times of war (Plattner, 1992), and there is currently debate over
the existence of much broader rights to humanitarian assistance (Kent, 2000).
Rights can exist formally in law as well as informally through custom or practice. In some
areas of activity, practice is as if a legal right existed. This is especially the case
with emergency aid which generally flows (or appears to flow) to apparently needy areas as
if it was a right. Aid to help those affected flows from governments, non-government
organisations and individuals, often from all over the world. This applies to both rich
and some poor countries, with some outstanding exceptions; for example, citizens of the
United Kingdom do not receive any aid from their national government following disasters
Examples of relevant rights law
There are numerous international conventions in the areas of human rights, as well as
those concerning health, children, violence, labour law and so on. Most have or may have
some relevance to vulnerability.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3, Universal
Declaration of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly, 10 December
1948). While this has traditionally applied to arbitrary arrest and detention, it may be
arguable that protecting the "security of the person" requires protection from
other forms of harm. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is more specific. It
requires signatory states to "ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and
development of the child." The Convention emphasises the right of children to the
highest attainable standard of health (Art 24.1), and requires states to "pursue full
implementation of this right" (Art 24.2). The International Convention on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights appears to be concerned with many of the constituents of
vulnerability: it protects the right to adequate food, nutrition, shelter, clothing,
education and health and medical services (Article 11).
However, these fundamental rights for survival are strongly disputed by many governments
and ignored by many others, for example the United States has yet to ratify the
Convention. Rights may also appear to conflict with commerce: how does a right to health
and medical services sit with the reluctance of global drug companies to allow generic
drugs for those who cannot afford the branded product? Not surprisingly then, there is now
an intense debate on whether rights associated with survival are as important as rights
associated with voting (see for example the cover story of The Economist 18-24 August,
There is clearly a massive implementation gap, even if we limit ourselves to the wealthy
countries! Enforcement of international law is very limited unless the issue is within the
ambit of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) - and the WTO has yet to be generally seen as
promoting a rights approach. Sovereignty and perceived national or partisan political
interests are more important for most countries. For example, rights can easily be set
aside if governments decide they conflict with security issues, and certain groups such as
asylum seekers can be excluded from the normal operation of the law.
Few countries embrace the full range of "human rights", challenging the notion
that rights are universal. Many countries and commentators have difficulty with the notion
that economic and social issues should be framed as rights (The Economist, 18-24/8/01: 9,
18). The European Union has put in place a fairly detailed set of enforceable social and
economic rights in addition to some regulations on emergency planning. However, Britain
has long argued against this trend and obtained exemptions from some key European
legislation. The United States has also argued against extension of the rights concept.
And under the current Bush administration it has also recently insisted that Americans
have a "constitutional right to keep and bear arms" (The Weekend Australian:
14-15/7/01:13) - going against over a century of US judicial opinion arguing just the
opposite (www.2ndlawlib.org/other/other/senrpt/senrpt27.html) and scuttling a UN
attempt to develop a treaty to control firearms trafficking. In stark contrast, much of
the rest of the world sees the proliferation of small arms, and the resulting violence and
terror, as a fundamental human rights problem. Other countries argue that human rights are
in fact about social and economic well-being, and not about individual political freedom.
The case for the latter on the grounds that it is supports economic and social well being
is elegantly put by Amartya Sen (1999) and others. But this may disguise massive
inequalities and malpractice even within wealthy countries and functioning democracies. An
exclusive emphasis on individual freedom and choice also suggests that there is no
collective responsibility for human well-being - something that numerous individuals and
groups around the world reject through their actions.
Apart from the theoretical issue of the universality of human rights, this raises the
question as to what extent is it reasonable to dictate national priorities to countries
and regions with their own distinctive cultural concerns, and their own urgent priorities?
For example, east Asian countries are seen as traditionally placing far more emphasis on
the perceived collective good than on individual rights and this is reflected in their
approach to democracy (Case 1992; Yu 2000; Bauer and Bell 1999. For a different view see
De Bary 1998). At a rather different level, it was reported recently that Fife Council in
Scotland had decided that having a drink in a local village pub should be treated as a
human right under European legislation (Melbourne Express 7/8/01:17).
What does a rights approach do for the most vulnerable?
Through existing law a rights based approach appears to have a lot to offer in terms of
reducing vulnerability in a general sense. But what might a rights approach do for the
world's most vulnerable people?
For the sake of argument I nominate two groups as the world's most vulnerable - although
of course I recognise that there are many other contenders:
- Victims of warfare or widespread violence which
destroys social and economic infrastructure. Currently some 56 countries are affected this
- The invisible and socially excluded. This group would
include slaves, currently estimated at about 27 million (www.oneworld.org/ni/index4.html),
refugees and displaced people (about 35 million in 2000 World Refugee Survey 2000), and
those existing at the margins of mainsteam society including the homeless, those without
livelihoods and some indigenous groups.
I think that the situation for these groups has
actually deteriorated as our awareness and concern for human rights has been increasing. A
legalistic rights approach may do little for these groups. The second group listed above
would need to be noticed before the law could apply - so processes designed to reduce
exclusion would be most useful. Once noticed, governments and media would need to avoid
vilifying these groups - as often happens for local political gain. Unfortunately, the
proliferation of war worldwide over the last decade has seen massive increase in the
number of refugees and of people trapped in areas where government, infrastructure
provision, civil society and markets for essentials such as food, have all but collapsed.
The casualties from these modern wars are almost entirely non-combatants - reinforcing the
need for, and weakness of, international laws intended to protect civilians during
conflict. In addition, there are a few countries ruled by governments or groups whose
actions constitute a direct attack on the rights of their own citizens to have livelihoods
and access to community support during crises.
This is not to say that a rights approach could not help the world's most vulnerable -
only that it does not appear to have so far. It is particularly disappointing to see some
governments in rich countries vilifying refugees and operating at the margins of domestic
and international human rights laws, while reducing international aid and effort directed
at solving the root causes of the refugee flow.
Many of the constituents of vulnerability come within the ambit of human rights law.
Considerable vulnerability reduction could be achieved by slight increases in compliance
with existing rights law through exhortation, shaming, trade pressure, diplomatic
persuasion and citizen activity. Is there a collective responsibility among all of us to
achieve this, and therefore also for risk and vulnerability management? Past activity in
the form of humanitarian support suggests that there may be.
But I am unsure that much would be achieved by attempts at enforcement through sanctions
or other forms of intervention. Those who think otherwise might like to consider just how
many countries have fully functioning legal systems operating without constant political
interference? Or have the capacity to develop and implement policy? Without judicial and
policy capacity it is difficult to see how a rights approach to vulnerability reduction
would be effective; and I would argue that these points are pre-conditions to an effective
legalistic rights approach.
Governments around the world need to be reminded about what they have signed in good faith
- and they need support to achieve these standards. Much of that support will need to come
from NGOs including religious, professional and community groups, and from locally based
and global commerce. Even in the absence of the key institutions mentioned above, human
rights law can be a powerful advocacy tool in the hands of civil society.
This note is an edited transcript of my presentation at the 2001 Boulder Annual Hazards
Workshop session on "Basic Human Rights and Disasters". My gratitude goes to
Mary Fran Myers and Ben Wisner for organising the panel and for inviting me to
participate, and to the other panel members: Gilbert White, Susanna Hoffman, Elaine
Enarson and Jose Chacon. Thanks also to Rebecca Monson and Ramona Wilson who provided
useful material and suggestions.
Bauer, J.R. and Bell, D.A. (eds) (1999) The East Asian challenge for human rights.:
Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK; New York.
Blaikie, P. Cannon, T. Davis, I. Wisner, B. (1996) At risk. London: Routledge.
Case, W. (1992) Semi-democracy in Malaysia: pressures and prospects for change. Regime
change and regime maintenance in Asia and the Pacific. Canberra: Research School of
Pacific Studies, Australian National University. (Number 8).
Catley, B. (1997) Hegemonic America: the benign superpower? Contemporary Southeast Asia.
De Bary, W. T. (1998) Asian values and human rights : a Confucian communitarian
perspective. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London.
Kent, G. (2000) The right to international humanitarian assistance. University of Hawaii.
Mileti, D. (1999) Disasters by design: a reassessment of natural hazards in the United
States. Washington DC: Joseph Henry Press.
Plattner, D. (1992) Assistance to the civilian population: the development and present
state of international humanitarian law. International Review of the Red Cross. No 288:
Sen, A.K. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford University Press.
UNDP Human Development Report 2000. United Nations Development Program.
Yu, Ying-shih. (2000) Democracy, human rights and Confucian culture. The 1998 Huang Hsing
Foundation Chun-tu Hsueh Distinguished Lecture. Asian Studies Centre, St. Antony's
College, Oxford University.
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