Natural disasters like the hurricanes Irma and Jose took a deadly path through the Caribbean and Florida, causing widespread destruction. Over the last decade, major natural disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, have focused world attention on the importance of having adequate national legal frameworks in place for disaster prevention and response. Legislation plays a crucial role in promoting and supporting disaster risk reduction as well as in guaranteeing the speed and effectiveness of disaster response. This blog explains in short the role and importance of international disaster response law.

IDRL Guidelines

Unlike armed conflicts, natural disasters have no legally binding set of regulations to govern the actions of those involved in aid and recovery. With the result of possibly inefficient delivery of aid, lack of accountability amongst humanitarian actors, and overall poor response to catastrophes. Humanitarian law applies when a natural disaster strikes during the course of an armed conflict; however, its coverage concerning humanitarian assistance is not applicable to other, non-conflict situations like natural disasters.

The need for a better synchronization and co-ordination of the codification activities and disaster prevention, management and recovery response has emerged.

natural-disastersTherefore the International Federation of Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has developed a complete set of International Disaster Response Laws (IDRL). The IFRC began its IDRL Program in 2001. The Program conducted studies of international norms, surveys of common problems faced by humanitarian actors, and regional consultations. In November 2007, the IFRC presented the “Guidelines for the domestic facilitation and regulation of international disaster relief and initial recovery assistance” (the “IDRL Guidelines”), unanimously adopted by all High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions. The UN General Assembly adopted 3 resolutions at its 63rd session that encourage member states' compliance with the Guidelines, and has reiterated the need for such guidelines in several resolutions. In addition to the IFRC’s IDRL Guidelines, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) compiled the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) in 2005. The HFA is a 10-year plan outlining priorities and principles to foster coordination among governments, organizations, and humanitarian actors during disaster response.

The IDRL Guidelines are not legally binding in the way that a treaty is, nor do they govern inter-state relations. The Guidelines are recommendations to governments on how to best structure their domestic laws relating to disaster management. Their function is to promote uniform legislation throughout countries as a means of eliminating the hurdles found in recent natural disaster responses, among them: barriers to entry of goods and people; legal recognition of organizations to operate; and coordination among organizations and governments.

Destruction Hurricane IrmaThe key principles of the IDRL Guidelines reflect those humanitarian principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL): humanity, neutrality, and impartiality. The Guidelines call upon States to assist humanitarian actors through responsive legal structures adept at handling the influx of aid by adapting visa and entry requirements for personnel and goods and by providing them domestic legal status (the power to contract, etc.). The Guidelines affirm that the State holds the primary responsibility for its citizens; however, if the government cannot meet those requirements, it should call upon aid from the international community.

Model Act for the Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance

In 2011, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the IFRC, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union launched the pilot version of their “Model Act for the Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance”, with the intention of launching a finalized version by the end of 2012. The Model Act is an example of what a national law relating to disaster recovery should look like, utilizing the standards set forth in the IDRL Guidelines. It is intended as a tool for states who wish to implement the IDRL guidelines and unsure of language to use in any new legislation to be passed.

The “Model Act for the Facilitation and Regulation  of  International  Disaster  Relief  and  Initial  Recovery Assistance” is intended as a reference tool for voluntary use, in whole or in part, by states  that  wish  to  prepare  for  the  possibility  that  they  may  one  day  require  international assistance to respond to a disaster on their territory. If such an event occurs, global experience shows  that  an  affected  state  will  benefit  from  a  clear legal  framework  for  the  entry  and coordination  of  international  humanitarian  assistance,  which  balances  safeguard s  for  public security and safety against the urgent needs of those affected by the disaster. This Model Act, like the IDRL Guidelines, is intended to help states address some of the legal and regulatory  issues  that  commonly  arise  concerning  international  assistance  during  disasters. These  issues  relate  to  the  entry  and  operation  of  assisting  international  actors,  and  also  to  the coordination of their assistance, especially in the relief and initial recovery period.

Core ideas of the Model Act and Implementation

The IDRL Guidelines are designed to help governments  to  prepare  for  them  before  disaster  strikes,  and  the  Model  Act  is  simply  to  provide  a  tool  for  states  wishing  to  implement  them.  It is  also  not  intended  to  describe  a  system  for  domestic  disaster management. It is a model law to help states integrate assisting international actors into a coordinated   response, as quickly as possible after the onset of a major disaster that overwhelms national capacity. The Model Act is based on the following core ideas:

  1. Domestic actors have  the  primary  role  in  meeting  the  humanitarian  needs  caused  by  a disaster.  The  government  of  the  affected  state  has  the  primary  responsibility, while National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies and other domestic civil society actors play a key supporting role.
  2. International relief providers  have  responsibilities  to  provide  their  disaster  assistance according to the principles of humanity and  impartiality,  as well  as  to  meet  minimum standards of coordination and quality in their relief goods, personnel and programmes.
  3. International actors need certain legal facilities, expedited procedures or other accommodations, to do an effective job responding to humanitarian needs. These  may include  expedited  approval  for  disaster  personnel,  goods  and  equipment, facilitation  of relief transport, exemptions from duties and taxes, and recognition  of legal capacity to allow them to operate legally within the country.
  4. Some legal facilities for international actors should be conditional on their commitment to, and continuing implementation of, minimum standards of quality and accountability.

Given  the  diversity  of  legal  systems  around  the  globe, and especially the different domestic approaches to disaster  management, it is well understood that not every clause in this model will be equally relevant to each country. In every case, it will need to be adapted  to  local circumstances. In some countries, it may not be possible or appropriate to adopt a single stand alone act embracing all of the topics included in this model. It should also be noted that the Model Act does not set out a system for coordinating domestic disaster response. It is assumed that such a system already exists under the disaster management legislation in the country enacting it.

Enhanced legal protection and regulation of disaster response will be critical in a future suffering from the effects of climate change. Natural disasters have increased substantially in recent years. Additionally, there has been a substantial increase in the number and type of aid responding to these disasters: international organizations; local NGOs; military; private individuals; and small non-profit organizations. Countries adhering to the IDRL Guidelines, and the Model Act, improving their domestic legislation and infrastructure, will be better able to facilitate fast and efficient recovery to an affected population within their borders.

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