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A Case for the law


Good disaster response laws can help relief agencies save lives. Inappropriate laws prevent aid from reaching those in need. Around the world, the Movement hopes legal reforms will come to the rescue.

DOZENS OF MAKESHIFT tents cover a dusty plain. It is an encampment for people left homeless by the giant earthquake that struck Pisco, Peru in 2007.

Haydee Cartagena and six family members live in one of the tents, if one could call it that. Straw matting, burlap bags and cardboard artfully matched together provide the walls. A blue tarp that leaks when it rains forms the roof. Their floor is dirt.

Candles offer the only source of night-time light. Water comes from a well 150 metres away. The outhouse is closer by.

Like others in the camp, Cartagena remains stuck in a legal limbo common to poor natural disaster victims. None of them can build more solid housing until the government awards them legal title to the humble plots that they now occupy.

“It’s better than nothing, but we don’t have everything yet,” says Cartagena, a stocky 56-year-old who survives on babysitting and washing clothes.

The 8.0-magnitude earthquake that levelled Pisco and killed more than 500 people has left much of the coastal town in ruins. It also exposed not just the susceptibility of Peru’s infrastructure to earthquakes but also gaps in its laws related to response and reconstruction from a natural disaster — a problem common to many countries impacted by natural disasters around the world.

Legal issues also delayed aid sent to Peru by the IFRC and other international groups immediately following the earthquake — including vehicles, medicine and even a portable X-ray machine. The Peruvian government had to grapple not only with a natural disaster but also with a deluge of aid, much of it inappropriate, that came pouring in by plane, car and truck through the country’s airports and borders.

In response to situations like this around the world, the IFRC is spearheading an effort to proactively address legal problems of response and recovery. It is also organizing work groups in Peru and elsewhere to help interested governments examine their laws and policies to ensure that they are ready to both speed the entry of humanitarian aid the next time a natural disaster strikes and adequately oversee and monitor the quality of that aid.

Acting before disaster strikes

The IFRC began its International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) programme in 2001 after its World Disasters Report highlighted the fact that a comprehensive and universally accepted international legal framework exists for armed conflicts but that the regime for aid in natural disasters is dispersed and little known. Several years of work led the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2007 to unanimously approve a new set of guidelines on facilitating and regulating incoming aid, based on existing international laws and treaties.

Governments would be asked to adopt the non-binding guidelines, which were given a formal name: Guidelines for the domestic facilitation and regulation of international disaster relief and initial recovery assistance, or the IDRL guidelines for short. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly and other intergovernmental forums have encouraged member states to use the IDRL guidelines to strengthen their own laws (see box What governments can do).

The IDRL guidelines “are designed to help countries to look at their own laws and regulations”, says David Fisher, the IFRC lawyer who is overseeing efforts to support the implementation of the guidelines throughout the world.

“It’s in the interest of governments to be better prepared for these regulatory problems during international relief operations,” he says. “The midst of a crisis is not a good time to develop a whole new set of rules. Some governments are more prepared than others, but most have very little law on this. They figure they’ll deal with the regulatory problems when they come.”

Once disaster comes, it’s too late

When the massive earthquake struck, with Pisco at its epicentre, at 18:40 on 15 August 2007, the ground shook violently for three minutes, crumbling most of the adobe homes and businesses.

Foreign governments and international aid groups immediately mobilized to send aid to Pisco, a town of 130,000 residents, three hours by car south of Lima. But as is often the case in major disasters, the government and aid agencies were swamped with a plethora of inappropriate and unneeded aid. Piles and piles of clothes donated by Peruvians and foreigners, for example, had to be discarded because they were dirty and torn or because it was taking too much time and effort to store and sort them.

“It was a mess in a lot of ways,” says Milo Stanojevich, who heads operations in Peru for CARE International.

Meanwhile, some assistance that might have been helpful was stymied due to regulations. Six doctors from the Colombian and Panama Red Cross Societies came to care for quake victims, but could not sign prescriptions because they were not licensed by the health ministry. “We always had to have Peruvian doctors with them so it limited our flexibility,” says Juan Cordero, a Peruvian Red Cross doctor.

At the same time, some much-needed material (vehicles, tents, antibiotics) sent by well-established relief organizations were held up in customs for a variety of reasons. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), for example, shipped a portable X-ray machine from the United States to Peru for use in Pisco’s main hospital, which was destroyed in the quake.

Though the town was left without any X-ray machines, the device was held in customs until PAHO officials secured an import certificate, a licence from the country’s National Institute for Nuclear Energy and a permit from the health ministry.

Just one example

Such stories should not obscure the fact that most of the aid sent did get through and that Peru’s existing disaster response laws did allow domestic and international agencies to respond in the immediate aftermath. Peru’s experience after Pisco reveals the challenges many governments face in balancing necessary import and health laws against urgent disaster response.

These types of problems aren’t unique to Peru.

Oxfam had 50 vehicles stuck in customs in Haiti for six months following the devastating January 2010 earthquake there. The organization had to rent vehicles for US$ 3,000 per month per vehicle.

In Indonesia, following the 2004 tsunami, authorities received several tonnes of expired medicines and food, as well as medicines that were unusable because they were labelled in languages not spoken in the country.

But in Indonesia, considerable progress has been made which has sharpened its disaster response, in part by establishing a 'one-stop' permitting procedure for Banda Aceh, says Isabelle Granger, now IDRL coordinator for the IFRC’s Americas zone. This accelerated relief efforts because aid workers could find all the officials from the different government agencies and ministries in one place.

Making a list

A similar type of pre-disaster approach is outlined in the 2007 IDRL guidelines. They encourage governments to establish a register of pre-approved international humanitarian groups that could be accorded a 'fast track' through entry controls, such as customs. Governments should also allow registration after a disaster hits for other aid groups capable of providing competent assistance.

Sorting out which groups are able to add value is becoming especially important because more and more associations are rushing to help disaster-stricken countries. About 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) showed up to help after the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, says Granger. For the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran: 120 and for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: 200. In Haiti, roughly 550 NGOs are registered but some observers have estimated that as many as 12,000 have a presence on the ground.

“It has been a burden on authorities,” Granger says. “They couldn’t coordinate all of them. Some of them didn’t come prepared.”

The good news is that governments are beginning to use the IDRL guidelines, with Indonesia leading the way. New Zealand, Norway and Panama have also drawn on the guidelines in developing new rules and procedures for international relief. In Europe, where European Union treaties have made national borders easier to cross, there are signs of cooperation on disaster response law emerging in nations that previously saw no need for regulating or facilitating external humanitarian relief.

It’s a slow process, concedes Fisher. Ten years after the issue was raised in the World Disasters Report and three years since it was prioritized in the International Conference, only a handful of countries have adopted comprehensive reforms, although over a dozen others are currently in formal review processes examining their existing laws and, in some cases, drafting new legislation.

With no natural and large domestic constituency for this type of legislative reform, it can be difficult to bring this issue to the fore. Also, politicians might see codifying procedures for accepting foreign relief as an admission of weakness, a sign that they are reliant on outsiders. Fisher feels National Societies can use IDRL as an opportunity to lead the debate and enhance disaster preparedness in the process.

A complex process

But ironing out the legal ramifications is not as simple as it might sound. Governments have legitimate concerns about controlling who and what enters their countries. The chronicles of humanitarian response tell stories of untrained volunteers, fraudulent doctors, untested drugs, harmful aid and even human traffickers entering countries during times of emergency. Good disaster response laws need to take these realities into account, and that’s why the IFRC is offering legal guidelines and proposes a process to guide the reforms, not a one-size-fits-all solution for every country.

In the Americas, there are ongoing projects in Colombia, Haiti and Peru, with more projects planned in Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica.

In Peru, the efforts involve representatives from all government ministries, two prominent businessmen, the UN and four humanitarian groups, including the IFRC. “The collaboration has been very extensive,” says Gustavo Adrianzen, a lawyer hired by the IFRC to support the process. “The government realizes the importance of the issue because of what happened in Pisco, as well as in Haiti and Chile.”

In the meantime, life is slowly returning to normal in Pisco, but at a slower pace than everyone hoped. The government is now paving streets and rebuilding sidewalks, beginning in the centre of town. But jagged scars deface many walls and many homes seem cobbled together with whatever materials occupants could salvage. Only about 50 per cent of the homes now have land title.

At the San Juan Dios hospital, the X-ray machine serves as a reminder of how inflexible rules can complicate the arrival of needed aid. Fortunately, the machine eventually did clear customs and remains in constant use today. It serves about 500 people a month, says Wilfredo Medrano, a hospital technician. “It’s a good machine.”

He is interrupted as Ricardo Galvez, a 34-year-old singer suffering from tuberculosis, steps on an apparatus to be tested.

“Take a deep breath,” says Medrano to Galvez.

By Tyler Bridges
Tyler Bridges is a freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru.


X-rays are a critical medical response tool. The machine that produced this image was initially held up in customs in the weeks following an earthquake in 2007. Now it is an important part of services offered at San Juan de Dios hospital in Pisco, Peru.
Photo: Rolly Reyna










Now being rebuilt, the church on Pisco’s main square was central to city life before it collapsed during the 2007 earthquake, killing dozens of people. In and around Pisco, the Peruvian Red Cross has been involved in many building projects including shelters, a school and a soup kitchen.
Photo: ©Rolly Reyna












“It’s in the interest
of governments to
be better prepared
for these regulatory
problems during
international relief
operations. The
midst of a crisis is
not a good time to
develop a whole
new set of rules.”

David Fisher, IFRC
disaster law specialist












Authorities in Peru are working to improve disaster response laws. After the Pisco quake, however, the vast majority of aid material did reach recipients quickly and without complication. Here members of the Peruvian Red Cross distribute aid near Pisco in the village of Tupac Amaru Inca.
Photo: ©Giancarlo Shibayama/IFRC












Reader question

In what ways do your country’s national disaster laws hinder or help in delivering disaster relief?
Send your experiences to or join our discussion at














More than three years after the quake, some earthquake survivors such as Haydee Cartagena still live in tents without running water. As is often the case after natural disaster, this is partly due to legal problems over land ownership that prevent people from building new homes.
Photo: ©Rolly Reyna



What governments can do

IFRC’s key IDRL recommendations:
• Reduce visa, customs, taxation and other legal barriers to the entry of relief goods and
personnel from foreign states and approved international humanitarian organizations
• Ensure adequate oversight and monitoring of international relief according to internationally
agreed standards of the quality of humanitarian assistance
• Establish and disseminate the procedures they would plan to use to facilitate and
regulate foreign assistance before a disaster strikes.


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