Stronger disaster laws will improve emergency response, General Assembly hears

Published: 24 November 2011 9:52 CET
When disasters such as the earthquake in Chile become more common, governments need to establish better laws for dealing with them.

By Joe Lowry

Since the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) last met at its General Assembly in 2009, the world has experienced some massive disasters – among them earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, Turkey and Japan; floods in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and Bolivia; the political instability in the Middle East and North Africa region; and the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

Humanitarian agencies have been stretched as never before. Staff and volunteers are trained to react rapidly, but can then find themselves tied up by red tape, or unable to act because of legal restrictions or the absence of a legal framework.

Today, on the first day of the IFRC’s General Assembly in Geneva, the federation’s leadership stressed the importance of robust disaster laws to reduce risks and organize an effective response to disasters.

“Many governments have been increasing their operational preparedness for disasters, but their legal preparedness has not always kept pace,” said IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta. “Weak legislation leaves gaps that we can no longer afford.”

The issue was cited as one of prime importance for the IFRC’s newest member, the Maldivian Red Crescent, which was officially recognized as the 187th member after this morning’s opening ceremony. The society’s president, Mohammaed Shafeeg, noted that working with government on policy is crucial for its auxiliary role and for the long-term success of the organization. The Maldivian Red Crescent recently hosted the first Red Cross Red Crescent conference on disaster law for South Asia in the lead-up to the Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which adopted the region’s first treaty on disaster cooperation this month.

Strengthening domestic laws and procedures in order to reduce vulnerability at the community level, ensuring the effective management of international assistance, and avoiding inequities in providing shelter for those left homeless, will be a key focus of discussions during the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent next week.  

The implementation of existing laws – particularly building codes and land management rules meant to protect and save lives – is also weak in many countries. “Governments need to set realistic standards that are within the reach of builders, and commit to working toward safer living arrangements even in the poorest communities,” said Geleta.  

Moreover, recent large-scale disasters have exposed the problems often faced by international relief organizations in obtaining entry visas, customs clearance, tax exemption, and transport permissions. Improving laws governing the large-scale influx of aid workers and relief items into disaster zones will also be discussed during the International Conference.

The importance of improved coordination in aid operations was noted by IFRC President Tadateru Konoé in his opening speech to the General Assembly. “Coordination is the responsibility of the whole Movement – and I mean the whole Movement - and I believe a more collaborative system, backed by mutual trust and reciprocity, is needed to maximize the benefits for our beneficiaries. Better coordination encourages better understanding of the respective mandate of each Movement component, which results in a better profile for each component and the Movement as a whole,” he said.

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