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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 of catastrophes.

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 major challenges:

• 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 authorities.

• 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 remittances.

• 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 positive.

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 at

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 human dignity."

Nick Cater
Nick Cater is an independent journalist and consultant on aid issues.

IDRL defined

"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 assistance activities."


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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