Protection in Natural Disasters

By Ferris, Elizabeth | Forced Migration Review, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Protection in Natural Disasters


Ferris, Elizabeth, Forced Migration Review


Preparing for, responding to and recovering from natural disasters is as much about human rights as about delivery of relief items and logistics.

Guidelines and principles are important for policymakers but they are also important to the first responders. In May 2010, a workshop in El Salvador was organised for fire-fighters, specialised military units, government agents, and the Red Cross who are the first outsiders on the scene when disaster occurs.1 As one military commander asked: "When it's 3.00 am and the electricity has gone and the waters are rising and people don't want to leave their homes, what is the right thing to do? Do we force them to leave against their will? Is it a violation of their human rights to force them to leave?"

In recognition of the human rights dimension of disaster preparedness and response, the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons developed the Operational Guidelines and Field Manual on Human Rights in Situations cf Natural Disasters2, which outline a human rights-based approach to disaster preparedness, response and recovery. In particular, the Guidelines emphasise the fact that people do not lose their basic human rights as a result of a natural disaster or their displacement. Even in the worst disaster situation people are entitled to the basic rights guaranteed to all residents and citizens, though they may in addition have particular needs related to the disaster. The primary duty to protect and assist those affected by natural disasters lies with the national authorities of the affected countries.

The Guidelines stress that human rights encompass not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights. However, in the midst of a disaster, it is often difficult to simultaneously promote all rights for all of those affected. Thus for practical reasons, the Guidelines divide human rights into four groups:

* rights related to physical security and integrity (e.g. protection of the right to be free of assault and rape)

* rights related to basic necessities of life (e.g. the rights to food and water)

* rights related to other economic, social and cultural protection needs (e.g. the rights to education and compensation for lost property)

* rights related to other civil and political protection needs (e.g. the rights to personal documentation and political participation)

The first two groups of rights are usually the most relevant during the emergency phase. Thus, in the initial disaster response, it is usually more important to ensure adequate access to water than to provide replacement identity cards to those displaced. …

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