The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Disasters (Natural or Humanitarian)

A disaster is an unexpected event, by definition. The responses to disasters—which may be natural (climatic, seismic, or other natural causes) or human (accidental or voluntary)—must therefore employ exceptional measures. International law does not establish any particular legal protection for individuals in such situations. On the contrary, it gives national authorities extended powers to deal with disasters, which may include the momentary suspension of certain human rights.

National civil defense services are responsible for providing relief to the affected population and maintaining public order. States often cooperate in such situations.

Humanitarian Disasters and Crises

To determine which rules of international law may be applicable in a given situation, it is important to look at the content and the cause of a disaster—natural or conflict-related—not its scope or the extent of the needs of those affected. Therefore, to be able to apply humanitarian law, it is crucial to qualify each situation precisely, since this qualification determines the rights and obligations of the different actors involved. International humanitarian law applies only in the case of armed conflict.

The words humanitarian disaster or crisis are non-legal terms, which may be used in good or bad faith to describe circumstances of suffering without indicating their causes. When such terms are used, they allow States and other actors to avoid the specific obligations that result from the exact qualification of a situation. They can limit their response to sending relief supplies.

For instance, the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 was called a “humanitarian crisis” for several months before the word genocide was used. States Parties to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are under the obligation to prevent and punish such acts. Recognizing that a genocide was occurring would have required States to take action. Hence, the UN Security Council Resolution 929—adopted in June 1994, in the middle of the genocide and despite its own reference in earlier texts (S/RES/925 of 8 June 1994)—determined that “the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Rwanda constitutes a threat to peace and security in the region” (S/RES/929 of 22 June 1994).

For humanitarian law to be applicable, the disaster must either happen during an armed conflict or be generated by it. It is therefore crucial to make a distinction between natural and manmade disasters. Even though the consequences in terms of needs may be similar, the methods of action and the issue of the right to intervene remain very different. To ensure that humanitarian law can be applied, it is therefore important to avoid terms such as humanitarian disaster or crisis when a more precise term can create more rights for victims or relief organizations.

One aim of humanitarian law is to prevent wars from causing natural disasters. Attacks against the natural environment, against objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and against works or installations containing dangerous forces (which may cause damage to the natural environment and hence prejudice the health or survival of the population) are therefore prohibited. Such installations include dams, nuclear or chemical installations, and other such works likely to cause widespread disasters and population displacement. Any such attack is a war crime. ▸ Protected objects and property

The law of armed conflict also foresees the role of government organizations in terms of civil defense, working in cooperation with relief organizations to protect civilians, to help them recover from the immediate effects of disasters, and to provide the conditions necessary for their survival (API Art. 61).

Civil defenseCollective securityFundamental guaranteesInternational humanitarian lawProtectionReliefResponsibility

In recent years, the world has witnessed an increase of natural disasters, in terms of scale but also of human damage, as climate change increases their occurrence. The impact of natural disaster is further worsened by the fact that the urban population has been constantly rising in the past fifty years, above all in developing countries, where this demographic explosion has led to the emergence of precarious living conditions for people in search of housing. To improve the capacity of States to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, the United Nations as well as the International Federation of the Red Cross have recently updated their strategies, guidelines, and tools.

The Role of the United Nations

The UnderSecretaryGeneral for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator is a high-level position in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The current holder is Valerie Amos, who took office on 1 September 2010, following her appointment by the UN Secretary-General. She is responsible for the oversight of all emergencies requiring United Nations humanitarian assistance, which includes natural disasters but also man-made humanitarian crises . She acts as the central focal point for governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental relief activities.

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group

The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) is a network of disaster-prone and disaster-responding countries and organizations dedicated to urban search and rescue (USAR) and operational field cooperation. It was established in 1991, following initiatives of international search-and-rescue teams who responded to the 1988 Armenia earthquake. The United Nations was chosen as the INSARAG secretariat to facilitate international participation and coordination. Since then, the INSARAG has been involved in rescuing activities in cases of earthquakes, such as in Indonesia in 2004 or in Haiti in 2010, but it has also intervened in cases of collapsed structures, such as in Indonesia in 2009 or in Iran in 2003.

The INSARAG mandate is given in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 57/150 of 27 February 2003, Strengthening the Effectiveness and Coordination of International Urban Search and Rescue Assistance. Its mandate is to render emergency preparedness and response activities more effective, improve efficiency in cooperation among international USAR teams working in collapsed structures at the site of a disaster, promote activities designed to improve search-and-rescue preparedness in disaster-prone countries, and develop internationally accepted procedures and systems for sustained cooperation between national USAR teams operating on the international scene.

The group is composed of three regional groups (Africa–Europe–Middle East, Americas, and Asia–Pacific) and a secretariat, the Field Coordination Support Section (FCSS) within the Emergency Services Branch of OCHA in Geneva. They each conduct damage and needs assessments, specify and prioritize the nature of assistance required in the request for international assistance, facilitate immigration procedures for international relief personnel, and designate a government entity with unique responsibility for coordinating international relief activities.

The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction

In December 1999, the United Nations launched the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which aims to improve preparedness to natural disasters and reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts, and cyclones through an ethic of prevention. The mandate of UNISDR was expanded in 2001 to serve as the focal point in the United Nations system for the coordination of disaster reduction. ISDR coordinates international efforts in disaster risk reduction (DRR), campaigns to create global awareness of DRR benefits, advocates for greater investments in risk-reduction actions, and informs people by providing practical services and tools such as the risk-reduction website Prevention Web, publications on good practices, country profiles, and the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, which is an analysis of global disaster risks and trends.

Improving Preparedness for Natural Disasters

Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance

In the event of a natural disaster, humanitarian organizations need the consent of the affected State to intervene. Sometimes humanitarian actors face the refusal of national authorities. But apart from this extreme situation, international assistance in situations of natural disaster often faces bureaucratic difficulties due to the disruption of local administrative capacity and the irrelevance of normal domestic procedures in such situations.

In order to facilitate operations and clarify the roles of affected States and international humanitarian actors, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) drafted a set of recommendations, which contribute to national legal preparedness to natural disasters. In 2007, after six years of research and eighteen months of formal consultations with States and national societies, the guidelines for the domestic facilitation and regulation of international disaster relief and initial recovery assistance (IDRL Guidelines) were adopted at the Thirtieth International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2008.

These Guidelines are non-binding. They are inspired from existing international instruments, including United Nations General Assembly Resolutions 46/182 of 1992 and 57/150 of 2003, the Measures to Expedite International Relief of 1977, and the Hyogo Framework for Action of 2005.

The goal of these guidelines is to help States adapt their domestic regulatory frameworks in order to facilitate international relief efforts before a disaster strikes their country.

For the purpose of these Guidelines, the International Federation of the Red Cross defines disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of society, which poses a significant, widespread threat to human life, health, property or the environment, whether arising from accident, nature or human activity, whether developing suddenly or as the result of long-term processes, but excluding armed conflict.”

The Guidelines list a number of recommendations reasserting the sovereignty of States and the role of assisting actors. In exchange, it lightens countries’ legal and administrative formalities for foreign relief agencies.

The main recommendations are as follow:

  • Affected States have the primary responsibility to ensure disaster risk reduction, relief, and recovery assistance in their territory.
  • National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as domestic civil society actors, must play a key supporting role at the domestic level.
  • Assisting actors and their personnel should abide by the laws of the affected State and applicable international law, coordinate with domestic authorities, and respect the human dignity of disaster-affected persons at all times.
  • Assisting actors should ensure that their disaster relief and initial recovery assistance is provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality, and impartiality.
  • In order to minimize trans-boundary impacts and maximize the effectiveness of any international assistance that might be required, all States shall develop procedures to facilitate the sharing of information about disasters and cooperate with other States and international humanitarian organizations.
  • States should adopt comprehensive legal, policy, and institutional frameworks and planning for disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, relief, and recovery that take full account of the auxiliary role of their National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society.
  • The international community, including donors and regional and other relevant actors, should support developing States, domestic civil society actors, and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to build their capacities to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, and respond to disasters domestically.
  • Disaster relief or initial recovery assistance should be initiated only with the consent of the affected State and, in principle, on the basis of an appeal.
  • The affected State should decide in a timely manner whether or not to request disaster relief or initial recovery assistance and communicate its decision promptly.
  • Military assets should be deployed for disaster relief or initial recovery assistance only at the request or with the express consent of the affected State, after having considered comparable civilian alternatives.
  • In return, affected States shall cut delays, taxes, and restrictions on the entry of relief personnel, goods, and equipment and facilitate the legal operation of relief providers in affected areas.

The Guidelines also provide a Model Act for the Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance, to be incorporated into national law within each country (updated in August 2011), and a legal database collecting national legislation on natural disasters is also available on the IDRL pages of the IFRC website.

@ http://

http:// /

For Additional Information: Alexander, D. “Towards the Development of a Standard in Emergency Planning.” Disaster Planning and Management 14 (2005): 158–75.

Bankoff, G., G. Frerks, and D. Hilhorst. Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People . London: Earthscan, 2004.

Dombrowsky, Wolf R. “Lessons Learned? Disasters, Rapid Change and Globalization.” International Review of the Red Cross 866 (June 2007): 271–77.

Fidler, David P. “Governing Catastrophes: Security, Health and Humanitarian Assistance.” International Review of the Red Cross 866 (June 2007): 247–70.

Harvey, Paul. “Towards Good Humanitarian Government: The Role of the Affected State in Disaster Response.” Humanitarian Policy Group, HPG Report 29, September 2009.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance.” 2007.

———. “Law and Legal Issues in International Disaster Response: A Desk Study.”

———. “World Disasters Report 2010: Focus on Urban Risk.”

Jakovljevic, Bosko. “International Disaster Relief Law.” Israel Yearbook on Human Rights 34 (2004): 251–86.

Paton, D., and D. Johnston. “Developing Disaster Management Capability: An Assessment Approach.” Disaster Prevention and Management 11 (2002): 115–22.

———. “Disasters and Communities: Vulnerability, Resilience and Preparedness.” Disaster Prevention and Management 10 (2001): 270–77.

Perrin, Pierre. “Strategy for Medical Assistance in Disaster Situations.” International Review of the Red Cross 791 (October 1991): 494–504.

Sphere Project. “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.” Geneva, 2004.

UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Secretariat. “Living with Risk: A Global Review of Disaster Reduction Initiatives.” 2004.

Wisner, Ben, Piers M. Blaikie, Terry Cannon, and Ian Davis. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters . London: Routledge, 2003.

Article also referenced in the 2 following categories :