Forecasters warned even before Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines that it might be the strongest storm in recorded history. It was 3.5 times more ferocious than Hurricane Katrina — and large enough to stretch from California to New York. The super typhoon made landfall in the eastern Philippines on November 8, 2013. With almost 10 million people affected, it is estimated that over 10,000 people have been killed, and nearly 700,000 displaced persons are taking refuge in some 1, 316 evacuation centers in 9 regions. Approximately, another 260,000 displaced persons are living outside these centers.
On December 26, 2004, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale triggered a powerful tsunami across the Indian Ocean. The tsunami struck northern Sumatra; the west coasts of Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka; the east coast of India; the Maldives; and northern Africa. The tsunami resulted in the deaths of approximately 240,000 people and displacement of more than one million people.
On October 8, 2005, another earthquake, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, struck Northern Pakistan, triggering landslides and hundreds of continuous aftershocks. The earthquake killed approximately 86,000 people, including more than 17,000 children; injured over 100,000 people; and caused destruction to infrastructure and housing, leaving an estimated 500,000 families homeless.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people and caused property damage estimated at $81 billion. Although Hurricane Katrina’s physical impact was confined within U.S. borders, its aftermath attracted global concern because the United States needed and accepted disaster assistance from the international community of States.
Natural disasters resulting from natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and famines, are a worldwide concern. They have affected nearly two hundred million people per year over the past two decades causing billions of dollars in property damage worldwide. Natural disasters know no geographical boundaries, no country, no region and no politics. They appear to be increasing in number and intensity, and people all over the world have endured their devastating consequences, such as loss of life and livelihoods, damaged infrastructure, and economic costs.
Natural disasters have demonstrated the vital role of the international community in facilitating humanitarian assistance to affected States. However, since there are no international legal obligations on States regarding disaster relief, it could potentially follow that individual Nation-States do not have any legal responsibilities concerning humanitarian assistance for natural disasters.
The lack of international legal obligations pertaining to disaster response is troubling, particularly when international aid agencies are overstretched in responding to crises. In a situation report released on Monday, November 11, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the capacity and resources of some agencies are “overstretched” as they are currently responding to two other humanitarian crises in the Philippines: the Central Visayas earthquake and the siege in Zamboanga City.
These past natural disasters have demonstrated the concern among all States for the responsibility to warn about the potential disaster, to react to the devastation, and to rebuild destroyed communities. Given the lack of international legal instruments setting forth the obligations of States regarding natural disasters some would argue that these “obligations” are rooted in customary international law.
In order for something to be considered customary international law, there must be general agreement among States to be bound to the responsibility to act in time of crises. While the international community has generally demonstrated an interest to be bound to the responsibility to provide humanitarian aid, this interest may not rise to the level of a legal duty since state practice of the responsibility to protect victims of natural disasters is likely insufficient and not widespread enough under customary international law standards. Thus, justifying the responsibility to provide assistance under customary international law may be difficult to argue.
Grounding the Nation States’ obligations in this regard on human rights might be more appropriate. Acknowledging the applicability of human rights norms to natural disaster victims would expand the scope of international human rights and reinforce the regime of international human rights law. Recognizing and codifying the relationship between human rights and the difficulties faced by disaster victims would impose on all States a legal responsibility to act in crisis arising from natural disasters.
However, implementing an international human rights instrument for natural disaster victims requires some sort of legal framework detailing its implications. It would also require that such legal framework defines and clarifies the States’ obligations. In effect, the human right in question would be related to the right to shelter, food, life, and health care as they arise in a time of crisis due to natural devastation.
Natural disasters affect the international community regardless of the geographical location where the disaster takes place. Although the international community relies on the individual State’s willingness to help, as well as on UN agencies and other NGO’s to react in time of crises, some argue that the aftermath of recent catastrophic natural disasters demonstrate the need for an international treaty clarifying the responsibilities of all States regarding natural disasters.
The important questions to consider are as follows:
Does the international community of States have a responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to disaster-affected States?
Should the United Nations be involved in creating legal obligations for States regarding humanitarian aid?
Should these legal obligations be grounded in international human rights law?