Published: 10 September 2005
Much is unique and unprecedented with the tsunami disaster – the range of countries and regions affected, its cinematographic visibility, the public attention and the volumes of funding available, most of it from the general public in many countries. The tremendous international solidarity, however, brings benefits as well as challenges.
I would like to briefly address some aspects encountered by humanitarian organisations active in the emergency as well as the recovery and reconstruction phases of the response. I will then touch upon the Federation’s position and actions with the regard to how international emergency assistance can become better organised and more expeditiously delivered, through the establishment of International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles.
“It was nature at its worst but humanity at its best” is how Jan Egeland has described the tsunami disaster and the ensuing response. For once, we have sufficient funds to address emergency and recovery needs after a disaster and the necessary disaster risk reduction activities beyond that.
As we all know, the problem is not too much money but that we regularly have too little funding for many other situations, where populations are in dire and desperate need. For those of us representing humanitarian organisations, basing action on the principles of impartiality and neutrality, the problem becomes particularly painful.
Working indiscriminately, “solely on the basis of need”, will not be possible if our donors, however generous, whether governments or the public, point us in the direction of only certain emergencies and disasters. Working on the response to the tsunami, we face a dilemma which we try to manage by including a call for solidarity with all those in need as one of our messages.
Many actors in the tsunami recovery effort are humanitarian organisations. This means having to manoeuvre in a heavily politicized context, facing a range of sensitive issues, such as the ultimate fate of those displaced, the equitable distribution of resources and the use and allocation of land for housing and infrastructure.
In addition, and as we have often seen, a natural disaster reveals political, social and economic divides in a society. Is this a role that humanitarian organisations should accept? Does it not risk jeopardizing the confidence in us as neutral and impartial actors?
When we look at the experience of the International Federation and its member Societies, we find that we have been involved in recovery and reconstruction efforts after almost all major natural disasters during the past decades.
We conclude that this is and will continue to be what we do, and we should see it as an integral part of the disaster management cycle, stemming from our presence in the midst of the affected communities. We even realize that our way of involving and empowering the local population in the early stages of disaster relief will have a major impact on their ability to recover.
What we need to do as a humanitarian organisation is to accept our situation and clearly define our role and our mandate in relation to national governments, the development banks, international organisations and NGOs, ensuring that we act in the best interest of the most vulnerable and that we use the post-disaster opportunity to truly strengthen community resilience and reduce the risk of disaster.
But let us go back to the emergency phase and put the early response in the context of international efforts to facilitate, coordinate and regulate humanitarian assistance.
As a federation of national societies, we believe strongly in the primacy of domestic actors. The principle of subsidiarity is very much a cornerstone in how we view roles and responsibilities in disaster response. This includes not only national governments, who have the acknowledged primary role in international law, and national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, who function as auxiliaries of their governments, but also local communities, including Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers, whose ability to respond is invariably the decisive factor in saving lives.
International solidarity, particularly in the form of outside humanitarian assistance, is nonetheless still needed in many disaster situations when local actors become overwhelmed, not least the devastating 2004 tsunami.
In his opening speech to this conference, our President Don Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro Rivera pointed out that within the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the most basic questions of principles, rights and duties in situations of natural or technological disaster have long been settled.
As affirmed by the International Conference of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (Principles and Rules for Red Cross and Red Crescent Disaster Relief, XXIst International Conference, as revised), we believe that every human being has a right to receive humanitarian assistance in strict accordance with his or her needs and that we, as individual societies and as the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, have an obligation to try to provide such assistance, in an impartial, neutral, efficient and effective manner.
This is the humanitarian imperative.
The question before us, however, is how international humanitarian assistance, when it is needed, should be facilitated, coordinated and regulated.
For example, should humanitarian actors benefit from liberal entry visa, landing, overflight, mooring, and transit privileges to ensure that aid arrives in the critical first hours and days after a disaster? Should international humanitarian assistance receive special dispensation from customs tolls, charges and taxes so that aid goes directly to its intended source? What guarantees exist as to the quality, transparency and appropriateness of international aid? What assurances are there that international efforts will complement rather than undermine or replace the capacity of local communities, domestic humanitarian actors and national governments?
From a purely practical point of view, these are not easy questions. Although there is a need for quick access for international aid to be effective, such access can and has been abused. In our experience of the tsunami, there are examples both of unnecessary legal barriers to access as well as of unhelpful practices by some aid providers.
Some answers to these questions can be found in existing but dispersed areas of international law including:
The international law of customs, aviation, health, atomic energy, communications, environment and law of the sea.
Inter-governmental bodies, including the International Conference of the Red Cross and the United Nations General Assembly and Economic and Social Council, have adopted numerous resolutions, decisions and recommendations relevant to IDRL issues.
A nascent accountability movement is growing among international humanitarian actors, as exemplified in the development of documents such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent NGO Code of Conduct and the SPHERE standards.
A substantial network of bilateral mutual assistance treaties between states has grown up over the last century and there are also a limited number of multi-lateral treaties specially focused on these issues, the most recent of which is the Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response adopted by ASEAN in July this year.
However, this existing international normative framework has, until recently, remained unnamed and unexplored and it is therefore not surprising that many of those most closely concerned are unaware of its full extent. Moreover, the existing framework remains thin with substantial gaps, both in the level of ratifications of key instruments and the scope of the instruments.
Since 2001, the International Federation has been attempting to address this problem through its “International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles” or “IDRL” Project.
The project has compiled over 400 international instruments relevant to this area, commissioned over a dozen country case studies, consulted with experts, practitioners and national governments, and sought to raise awareness of both the existing “IDRL” and existing gaps.
Still, much remains to be done, and the Federation hopes that conferences like this one will stimulate more thinking on this new but tremendously important topic.
In particular, the Federation is currently organizing a network of interested individuals, agencies and governments to discuss and debate solutions to the problems remaining in the area of IDRL and hopes that many of you will be interested to join in.
To conclude, the international solidarity shown to the survivors of the tsunami has translated into tremendous confidence in us to help restore their livelihoods.
This, however, must be a collaborative effort, ultimately ensuring that it is they who are the agents, given the resources and the support to take action, now and in preparedness for any future calamity that they may face.