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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“Take a deep breath,” says Medrano to Galvez.
By Tyler Bridges
Tyler Bridges is a freelance journalist based in Lima,
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
of governments to
be better prepared
for these regulatory
midst of a crisis is
not a good time to
develop a whole
new set of rules.”
David Fisher, IFRC
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
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