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).
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.