Friday, January 9, 2015

Disaster Management: the Principles and Legal Frameworks Involved

Why is disaster management so important?  Why do international organisations, authorities, military units and volunteer associations respond in the case of a disaster?

I have talked a little bit about humanitarianism in other posts but I feel that it is important to include the rights described by the Humanitarian Charter in the Sphere Handbook as these outline the basic principles for which assistance from humanitarian agencies is provided.  The Charter explains that these rights are not stated exactly as such in international law, but they do serve to summarise the legal rights established in various international codes and regulations.  The basic principles are:

  • The right to life with dignity
  • The right to receive humanitarian assistance 
  • The right to protection and security 
(The Sphere Project n.d.)

I had never really considered how many different sets of laws, rules and regulations that apply when providing humanitarian assistance.  The list includes:

  • The domestic laws of the country from which you come and your organisation has employed you
  • The domestic laws of the host country (local, state or provincial and national)
  • Status of forces agreements (agreements between host governments and military forces)
  • International criminal law
  • International disaster response law
  • Refugee law
  • Human rights law
  • Law of peacekeeping operations
  • International humanitarian law
  • International law and the law of the force
  • The code of conduct and policies of the organisation you are working for
  • Any rules and regulations stipulated by the host country upon requesting assistance and/or granting entry and the rights of operation that were agreed to by your organisation
  • The code of ethics and conduct outlined by the professional licensing body under which you practice and are registered as a member (i.e. Ontario College of Nurses, Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia, Australian Health Practitioner Agency (AHPRA), etc)
  • The code of conduct and policies of the local institution(s) in which you end up working (i.e. domestic hospitals, etc)
(Dunham 2014)

Acting in defiance of any one of these laws or policies could have a range of consequences for yourself, your profession and your organisation.

What are the fundamental principles and characteristics of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Human Rights Law and Refugee Law?  How are these different?

International Humanitarian Law

  • Only applies in cases of armed conflict
    • default to ordinary international laws in times of peace
  • Protects those who are not or are no longer actively participating in the hostilities including:
    •  civilians
    • former soldiers who have put down their arms and/or can no longer fight
    • individuals and groups providing humanitarian assistance (i.e. those working with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movements have added protection and trust under those emblems as they denote neutrality)
  • Aims to prevent additional unnecessary suffering
  • Sets limits on the activities of warfare (for governmental and non-governmental groups, i.e. rebel forces)
  • No derogable rights (rights that can be limited or suspended during an emergency and/or conflict)

(Dunham 2014)

International Human Rights Law

  • Apply during peace time and conflict
  • Include the basic human rights and freedoms every individual is entitled to
    • right to life
    • adequate standard of living
    • right to assembly
    • freedom of the press, etc
  • Some rights are derogable during an emergency and/or conflict
(Dunham 2014)

Refugee Law
  • Outlines the rights and standards of treatment of refugees
    • the right to seek asylum, the right to shelter, identification documents, family unity, etc
  • Includes non-refoulement (cannot be forced to return to the country from which they seek asylum once given refugee status), which is also protected under International Human Rights Law and International Law
  • Does not apply to internally displaced persons as they have not left international borders

In class we did an activity that I found quite interesting and would like to include here called "Which type of law?".  It involved identifying which kind of law would apply in various scenarios.  I will be answering in the form of a question (like a good Canadian who grew up watching Jeopardy).

1.  An Egyptian Coptic Christian has suffered dreadfully during the country's recent turmoil.  is wife had been killed during a firebombing of her church.  In fear of his life he escapes, somehow making it across the Mediterranean, until he finds himself seeking entry and sanctuary in France.  Which type of law applies?

My answer:  What is Refugee Law?

The correct answer: Refugee Law so long as he can show a well-founded fear of persecution

2.  Child soldiers recruited into active service in an army must be above the minimum age of fifteen.  Which type of law applies?

My answer:  What is International Human Rights Law?

The correct answer:  International Humanitarian Law, for countries that have not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but International Human Rights Law applies for countries that have signed the Convention and prohibits them from recruiting soldiers between the ages of 15 and 18 years of age.

3.  African Union soldiers working under UN command in Sudan are alleged to engage no only in corruption, but in the brutal rape of already terrified war victims.  Which type of law applies?

My answer: What is International Humanitarian Law?  International Human Rights Laws may apply as well perhaps?

The correct answer: Domestic laws could apply as well as International Humanitarian Law

4.  Australia has adopted legal processes and policies to check that those seeking to enter the country are not indicted or apparently involved in war crimes elsewhere.  Which type of law applies?

My answer: What is Refugee Law?

The correct answer:  Under International Human Rights Law, individuals have the right to seek asylum, but under Refugee Law, they can be denied refugee status by a country if they have been involved in war crimes.

5.  A mosque near the Black Sea is hundreds of years old and decorated with magnificent pearl tiling.  The law protects this building and the freedom to worship there.  Which type of law applies?

My answer:  What is International Human Rights Law?

The correct answer:  International Humanitarian Law.  While International Human Rights Law protects the right of an individual to worship, it is International Humanitarian Law that protects the building from being intentionally damaged.  I found this one to be a bit of a tricky one, but I understand now.

I do not think that my answers were too far off in the end.

Having been an international volunteer with two different agencies, I was aware that I had to abide by the domestic rules of the country I was working in as well as the code of conduct of my agency, but I had never given much thought to the other laws.  I suppose I always figured that I was not an international criminal and was there in good faith so as long as I behaved the way that I usually do (being respectful, not stealing anything or assaulting anyone, etc) I should be fine.  Now of course I realise that could lead to serious mistakes for a humanitarian worker.  A particular action or activity could be legal domestically but go against international law (for example, the stoning of homosexuals, thieves or women accused of being unfaithful).  While I'm sure most volunteers would not join in with that kind of activity, they might be at risk of doing so if their mental state is compromised or if they have become desensitised to that kind of behaviour after a long period of service.  Local volunteers could also be more at risk of engaging in those sorts of activities simply because it is the norm where they are from.


Dunham J 2014, The International Legal Framework for Humanitarian Action, Lecture slides, Health Aspects of Disaster, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

The Sphere Project 2011, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, 3rd edn, The Sphere Project, Geneva.

The Sphere Project, n.d., The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, viewed 17 December 2014, <>.


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