On Monday 16th March 2015, UCL IRDR hosted a public forum panel discussion on “Human Rights and Disaster Risk Reduction” as a side event of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai. David Alexander, UCL IRDR Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction, convened the panel to explore whether failure to mitigate disaster risk may be related to a failure to guarantee basic human rights, and if disaster situations can sometimes be used as an opportunity to deny rights. David proposed that whilst the articulation of human rights – as outlined by the UN, EU, and in national conventions and laws – are often ineffective in practice due to loopholes, exclusions and varying interpretations, and although externally imposed rights may clash with local cultures and traditions, there is a need to be more courageous about asserting human rights. Starting from the assumption that human rights are indeed universal, and that they have a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction, he requested that the panel consider (among others) the following questions:
- Do disasters lead to particular violations of human rights?
- Is denial or restriction of human rights diagnostic of marginalisation, and how does this make people and communities vulnerable to disasters?
- To what extent is the freedom and development of women and girls a human rights issue, and how does this bear upon resilience against disaster?
- Will an improved dialogue on human rights (a more explicit treatment of the question in open public discussion and official agreements) lead to reductions in disaster risk?
- How universal is the concept of human rights, and does it have a cultural dimension?
- How does the assertion of fundamental rights fit with the need to assume responsibility for disaster risk reduction?
On considering whether there is a human right to DRR, the first panelist, Richard Olson, Professor and Director of the Extreme Events Institute, Florida International University, posed the question ‘Is there a human right to life-safety?’. He stated that a major driver of loss of life from natural disasters derives from land use and building standards. These are planning issues with long-established solutions for which ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse. Yet many decision makers continue in their behavior of ‘non-decision making’. That is to say, they keep issues that could address the human right to life safety off the agenda, such as improved building code enforcement and land use planning.
The second panelist, Terry Cannon, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), questioned the universality of the concept of human rights, proposing that human rights can be perceived as a colonial imposition of the western world on other cultures. He explored the notion that some nations and cultures may not conform to the western interpretation of the ‘right’ way and questioned the relevance of legally backed rights in changing cultural behaviour. He suggested that human rights as viewed by western capitalist nations may not be appropriate for different political systems at different stages of development, and that the ‘push back’ against an external imposition of rights could in fact make the situation worse.
Virginie Le Masson, Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also considered the culturally variability and universality of the concept of human rights, through the lens of gender rights. She advocated that although DRR workers do not have the right to impose their cultural values onto the communities where they are engaged, there is a moral obligation inherent to development assistance that compels one to oppose inequality, especially in the context of women’s rights. DRR is premised on the reduction of vulnerability, and this vulnerability frequently arises from inequality and disadvantage. If human rights are an imposition, claimed Le Masson, then so too is DRR.
Panelist Arif Rehman, Vulnerability and Resilience Coordinator at LEAD Pakistan, offered practitioner examples from experiences of DRR in Pakistan. He reported that although human rights are formally guaranteed by the state, the devolution of responsibility for these rights to local governments has resulted in strengthening existing power structures and local elites, rendering the notion of state-guaranteed rights redundant, especially given that many of the most vulnerable people are already beholden to local interest groups such as landowners.
The next panelist, Nanako Shimizu, Associate Professor in the Faculty of International Studies, considered the human rights issues that resulted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She claimed that the causes of nuclear health risk issues to the population surrounding the nuclear power plant were, (1) failure of prevention, (2) insufficient or misleading post-accident measures, and (3) lack of awareness within the population to realise their rights in a post-disaster context.
The final panellist, Cassidy Johnson, Senior Lecturer at the UCL Development Planning Unit, considered human rights in the aftermath of an earthquake in Turkey. Immediately after the earthquake, the disaster served as an economic leveler between the rich and poor, all of whom lost homes, family, and livelihoods. However, compensation measures implemented by the state in the recovery phase resulted in aggravating inequality by providing property to past owners and depriving tenants of the right to new housing. Cassidy’s case study highlighted how the continuation of pre-existing property regimes into a post-disaster context can amplify rights inequality.
Much of the discussion at the event centred around the question of whether human rights are an imposition or a necessity in the implementation of an effective and just DRR system. Whilst a few of the audience agreed with Cannon’s view, that human rights should not be externally imposed on other societies, many challenged it. Relating more closely to the issue of DRR within human rights, several audience members highlighted examples where the presence of pre-existing human rights violations left societies more vulnerable to disasters, so there is still much more to debate on this issue.