Legal protection for disaster victims
By Nick Cater
Comprehensive efforts to map the national
and international laws that relate to disaster response and
examine how to improve them will reach a significant milestone
at this December's International Conference.
After many months of worldwide research and field studies
on its International Disaster Response Law (IDRL) project
the International Federation hopes its interim conclusions
and proposals for further work will win approval from governments
and all elements of the Movement.
Fast and effective international disaster response is essential
to save lives and protect human dignity, yet the project has
identified how legal problems can too often hamper or block
assistance from reaching those in need. The International
Conference will discuss five ideas for action (see box), from
advocacy to improving disaster laws to a practical handbook
to help governments and others manage the legal dimension
Project reports say a patchwork of IDRL exists, but comprehensive
legal instruments with internationally-agreed principles to
assist millions affected by natural and technological disasters
have yet tobe established. Elements of IDRL can be found in
hundreds of treaties, resolutions and guidelines, from global
conventions on customs or nuclear accidents to the "soft
laws" of decisions at the United Nations General Assembly
and other inter-governmental bodies, and in the mass of regional
and national rules.
Rescue efforts following the earthquake in Algeria
earlier this year.
©Christopher Black / International Federation
Amid many legal gaps and weaknesses, the project found four
• Inconsistent access to disaster-affected people. Influenced
by political, economic or security factors, access varies
widely. In some countries, it relies on pre-negotiated agreements
between agencies and states; in others, it depends on various
legal frameworks through which aid is agreed; in a third group,
ad hoc arrangements mean building trust with national or local
• Delays and inefficiency in facilitating disaster response.
Many problems relate to under-resourced or bureaucratic government
structures, which lead to delays in visa or customs processing
for people or equipment overflight, landing rights and transit
clearances, high taxes on relief goods, lack of legal recognition
or protection of agencies and personnel, and difficulties
hiring staff, leasing buildings and organizing banking and
• Gaps in the use of quality and accountability standards.
Existing guidelines, such as the Disaster Relief Code of Conduct
or Sphere Standards, may be well known but have limited impact.
Such standards are not fully operational, expatriate staff
are employed when local skills could be better used, while
governments, funders and other interest groups exert too much
control over the distribution of relief goods.
• Lack of national and international coordination. This
seems to be the greatest challenge to efficient humanitarian
efforts, especially with the central, but sometimes inadequate,
role of host governments — many of which lack a designated
authority for disaster response liaison — and limited
understanding of international assistance by officials.
A crucial part of the project has been field studies in 15
countries from Costa Rica to Zimbabwe. They aimed to identify
the major difficulties humanitarian workers experience, determine
which laws and policies are already used, and assess the impact
of the presence or absence of legal instruments.
Disaster-affected countries often have low awareness of potentially
helpful international laws yet better understanding of national
policies whose bureaucracy, inflexibility and lack of standards
can hamper relief operations. Existing laws tend to be retrospective,
lacking pre-negotiated agreements between states or specific
national rules relating to disaster or emergency situations.
Strong evidence was found to link good laws to better disaster
response. In Central America, which is frequently hit by shared
trans-border disasters, international agreements and understandings,
and harmonization of disaster management laws enable fast
delivery of relief goods and have a positive impact on overall
efficiency, while Viet Nam's frequent flooding has produced
well-defined national laws, systems and strategies. In some
other regions, the situation is less developed and the response
to the International Federation's initiative is strong and
Improving IDRL and its implementation — especially if
done with wide consultation, including participation by disaster
survivors — could help in many ways, from clarifying
relief worker responsibilities and dealing with operational
problems to helping states better coordinate humanitarian
assistance and build the capacity of National Societies. International
standards could be used to develop model principles for integration
into national laws and offer a framework for humanitarians
and states to discuss all issues that help or hinder relief.
It is also apparent that a handbook written in easy-to-understand
language would benefit people responding to disasters.
Some experts see a need to refine IDRL's scope to concentrate
on relief so it has a unique and useful place alongside laws
covering related issues, such as mitigation, rehabilitation,
development, or the conflict-focused Geneva Conventions of
international humanitarian law. Discussions with governments
and others have already brought a change in terminology to
refer to international disaster response "laws",
reflecting the diversity of the existing legal patchwork.
The changed terminology also underscores the conclusion that
the most valuable work in the near future is likely to be
in the rationalization, better understanding and implementation
of existing law rather than in the drafting of a new global
convention. Work on IDRL has underscored the unique nature
of the International Federation and National Societies as
a bridge linking intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.
This bridging role has been of particular value in reflecting
community needs into the wide analysis of the effectiveness
of international law.
The importance of IDRL and the role of the Movement have
been promoted to national, regional and global audiences,
including the UN General Assembly and its Economic and Social
Council. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted the project's
work in his 2002 report "Strengthening of the Co-ordination
of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance of the United Nations".
Corresponding with that growing interest, the Conference
will see the launch of both a CD-ROM of hundreds of legal
instruments collated during 11 legal studies around the world,
from Nicaragua to Turkey, and a book exploring IDRL's many
dimensions, such as risk management, displaced people and
humanitarian accountability. Much more on IDRL is available
Project coordinator Victoria Bannon said: "We are at
the start of a long road, but the hard work so far has shown
that we are on the right track. In the International Federation
we know that National Societies, governments and other institutions
are willing to assist us in continuing this work. Improving
the laws and other instruments that regulate international
disaster response is not just an academic exercise. Doing
nothing is putting people's lives at risk, so there is really
no choice if we want to reach the ultimate goal of protecting
Nick Cater is an independent journalist and consultant on aid
"The laws, principles and other instruments applicable
to the access, facilitation, coordination, quality and accountability
of international disaster response activities in times of
non-conflict related disasters, which includes preparedness
for imminent disaster and the conduct of rescue and humanitarian
What next? Five IDRL ideas for discussion
at the International Conference:
• For impact on the practical challenges of disasters,
the concept and term IDRL must move higher on the international
agenda to secure more understanding and support.
• More research is needed to identify and compare a
wider range of the disaster-related legal instruments that
already exist at national, regional and international level.
• Useful principles and standards in many examples
of "soft law", such as United Nations resolutions,
should be widely used to develop and improve IDRL worldwide.
• A how-to handbook — plus training and support
— would help ensure that existing laws are better understood
and used effectively by all those working in disaster zones.
• Advocacy is vital so a better legal system can help
improve access, facilitation, coordination, quality and accountability
in disaster response for millions affected every year.
IDRL in action
An example of how “soft laws” can help improve
disaster response came in the 2003 Algerian earthquake.
Following concern over the quality of response to earthquakes
in the 1990s, the International Search and Rescue Advisory
Group (INSARAG) — which works with many teams around
the world — hoped to create a full global convention
but that proved too complex. Instead, UN General Assembly
resolution 57/150, setting out standards and procedures, was
agreed in late 2002.
Working with Algeria was a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination
team, led by Thomas Peter of the UN Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Affairs.
"That process of winning agreement on the UN resolution
meant that awareness and understanding of the issues involved
in search and rescue were raised from a practitioner's level
to that of foreign ministry in many countries. This contributed
to a far better readiness to plug into the coordination system
set up in Algeria, and made the job of the Algerians in coordinating
international assistance easier," said Peter.
A recent experts meeting on the lessons of the Algerian earthquake
reported that "endorsement of Resolution 57/150 by the
UN General Assembly was a defining moment for international
assistance. The resolution has already proven a useful tool
in several situations, and should be seen as the fundamental
strategic document for the further work of INSARAG".
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