In what could forecast similar problems in New Orleans, Boalt Professor Laurel Fletcher and colleagues at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley have found that throughout countries affected by the December 2004 tsunami, survivors continue to suffer inequities in aid distribution and substandard shelter.
These problems primarily stem from government incompetence or corruption, discrimination and a lack of public accountability, according to a study released today (Wednesday, Oct. 19) by the Human Rights Center and the East-West Center, an internationally recognized research and education organization in Honolulu, Hawaii. “What we found in this report is equally applicable to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; we need to be vigilant that the human rights of the storm’s victims are observed in words and deeds,” said Fletcher, a co-author of the study and director of Boalt’s International Human Rights Law Clinic.
Until the 2004 tsunami, there has been little attention paid to natural disasters from a human rights perspective. Yet human rights protections are a powerful tool to identify and address the ways that the response to natural disasters can make vulnerable populations more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Tsunami survivors, like many victims of Hurricane Katrina, are angry and frustrated, according to Fletcher. “Months have passed, and they are still living in displacement camps where they have virtually no say in how their communities will be re-built,” she said. The study, “After the Tsunami: Human Rights of Vulnerable Populations,” is based on interviews conducted in March and April of 2005 with tsunami survivors, government officials, human rights activists, and aid workers in five tsunami-affected countries-India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Thailand.
Fletcher will be in Sri Lanka from Oct. 26-28 for the APF-Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, a regional workshop on national human rights institutions and internally displaced persons.
The study’s major findings include:
- Vulnerable groups, such as women, children and migrant workers, have suffered violations of human rights, including sexual violence and arbitrary arrest, during the relief phase and remain at risk as reconstruction begins. In addition, children living in conflict zones have been forced into armed groups. In some areas, government officials have refused to allow people access to aid in order to secure military goals.
- Tsunami survivors reported widespread inequities in aid distribution on the part of some government agencies as a result of favoritism and political influence, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and caste affiliation. This situation was further compounded by the lack of accountability on the part of some government and aid agencies.
- Governments in all five tsunami-affected countries failed to establish effective mechanisms to respond to complaints of abuses, and international humanitarian agencies often failed to report abuses. A lack of coordination on the part of aid agencies, coupled with a lack of oversight, also led to inequities in aid distribution.
- Government agencies and aid organizations often failed to consult people in affected communities about aid distribution and reconstruction. Without that consensus, charges of cronyism and corruption flourished.
“Millions of dollars are being spent on tsunami relief with little accountability to survivors on how those funds are being distributed,” said Eric Stover, a member of the research team and director of the Human Rights Center.
“Given what we have learned in the aftermath of last year’s tsunami, we need to pay close attention to how Katrina’s most vulnerable victims fare,” said Harvey Weinstein, clinical professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and co-author of the report. “What the tsunami taught us is that we must be especially vigilant that the human rights of victims of natural disasters are respected.”
The report recommends that the following measures be taken:
- Government officials in the five countries affected by the tsunami should commission an independent study to investigate reports of inequities in aid distribution and take steps to remedy any irregularities and compensate survivors.
- The countries should increase accountability and transparency of public and private aid providers. National human rights commissions in the affected areas should monitor the situation and report on compliance with international standards for the treatment of the internally displaced. Officials in affected countries also should establish a system to resolve individual complaints.
- State and aid agencies should develop mechanisms that enable tsunami survivors to participate in reconstruction planning and implementation. Consultation should enable community members to participate in policy decisions regarding location of housing, access to basic services, and priorities for reconstruction.
- “Natural disasters expose the inherent weaknesses of governments and the fragility of social and environmental structures in the face of such massive destruction and displacement,” said Nancy Lewis, director of research at the East-West Center. “To strengthen societies and rebuild resilient communities, tsunami survivors need to be active participants in–and not auxiliaries to–reconstruction plans.”