Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Can International Norms Protect Us from Natural Disasters?

Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Can International Norms Protect Us from Natural Disasters?

Article excerpt

The panel was convened at 2:30 pm, Thursday, April 10, by its moderator, David Fisher of the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies, who introduced the panelists: Kirsten Bookmiller of Millersville University; Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution; Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School; and Ingrid Nifosi-Sutton of American University Washington College of Law.


By Kirsten Nakjavani Bookmiller


I am employing here a different entry point than traditionally seen within the public international law discipline regarding the question of whether international law can save us from disasters. I will discuss the efforts of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), and to a lesser extent, the nascent initiative by foreign medical teams (FMTs) to promote international legal standards related to cross-border relief. At first glance, this may appear to be a rather niche starting place for such a discussion. Yet I assert that by shedding light on the standard-setting efforts of INSARAG and FMTs, we gain greater insight into international law in general and specifically into international disaster response law (IDRL) in three different respects:

1. Both groups represent more atypical contributors to international lawmaking than commonly studied;

2. Their efforts together illustrate how soft law can address highly time-sensitive, practical challenges faced by responding and disaster-affected states related to transnational relief; and

3. When such standards reach their outer limits of efficacy, INSARAG's work, in particular, suggests that ongoing self-regulation (with United Nations facilitation) bolsters state confidence and therefore its willingness to open its borders to international relief.

As INSARAG has been in existence for over twenty years, and the FMT effort only began in earnest in 2011, I will primarily focus my observations here on the former.


A brief background is first required. Established in 1991, INSARAG is a worldwide professional network of over eighty urban search and rescue (USAR) teams and governments, with its secretariat housed at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Within the international humanitarian assistance field, USAR performs a very specific function: locating and extricating victims from collapsed structures. Within * the first twenty-four hours of an event, local inhabitants and authorities are always the first to engage in search and rescue of victims trapped close to the surface. However, more deeply entombed victims will require an exceedingly specialized response, with few countries possessing such capability. This is where internationally available, "heavy" USAR may be of great value. Professional teams, with potentially over a hundred personnel each, arrive outfitted with sophisticated equipment for searching, retrieval, and pre-hospital medical support, and accompanied by trained search dogs. There is no standing United Nations capacity in this area.

USAR assistance, both domestic and international, emerged in tandem with the worldwide increase of "megacities" in the 1980s, with its corresponding construction boom in highoccupancy buildings. Two devastating earthquakes in the 1980s--Mexico City and Armenia--brought the issues of poorly constructed, high-density structures in seismically active zones to the forefront for the first time. USAR as a field had only recently begun to organize domestically in the United States and Western Europe. The loosely formed units were ill-trained to provide cross-border aid, with nine countries responding to Mexico City and double that number in Armenia. In both cases, the first international teams--with few mobilization protocols in place, vast distances to travel, and host governments that were nervous and sometimes hostile about customs, immigration, and countless other concerns--arrived in-country fifty plus hours after the quakes had taken place. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.