IACHR Expresses Solidarity with People Affected by Earthquake and Hurricanes in Countries of the Region and Urges States and the International Community to Take Steps to Address the Situation of Those Affected

from Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Published on 12 Sep 2017

Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its deepest solidarity with the people affected by the recent natural disasters that have hit several countries in the region in recent days. The IACHR calls on the States, the international community, international agencies, and all relevant actors to join in efforts to help those affected. It reiterates the importance of upholding international human rights obligations in all circumstances during the emergency and adopting measures to respond to the impacts of climate change.

The IACHR would like to express its sincere condolences to the families of the women, men, and children who died and to all those who have been affected by these natural disasters. The IACHR also expresses to the authorities of the affected States and the international community its willingness to collaborate, within the scope of its functions, with any initiatives that may be implemented to overcome this critical situation in the region.

In terms of the hurricanes in the region, the information available indicates that on September 8, 2017, Hurricane Irma was classified as a Category 5, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean outside the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, with winds of up to 185 miles per hour. Hurricane Irma hit several islands with intensity, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, St. Martin, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, causing major devastation and leaving at least 35 people dead in the Caribbean, including 10 in Cuba, as well as 11 fatalities in the U.S. state of Florida. Hurricane Irma also caused massive flooding and serious damage to infrastructure related to tourism and agriculture. In Florida, close to 7 million people were evacuated, while in Cuba, at least 1.5 million were evacuated on the island. Hurricane Irma reached the United States on September 10. While the damages have yet to be quantified, it is feared that the sea level will rise by more than 12 feet and that this could lead to loss of life and material losses. Meteorologists predict that the storm will continue toward the U.S. state of Georgia before moving on to Alabama and Tennessee. In referring to the impact of Hurricane Irma, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, indicated that the island of Barbuda was left “practically uninhabitable,” with more than 95 percent of buildings damaged. Meanwhile, Hurricane Katia passed by southeastern Mexico with maximum sustained winds of 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour, leaving two people dead in the state of Veracruz.

Meanwhile, on August 30, Hurricane Harvey hit the U.S. state of Texas with Category 4 strength, the most powerful hurricane to reach Texas in the last 50 years. Approximately 60 people have lost their lives because of Harvey, and nearly 42,000 people were evacuated to 258 shelters due to the flooding caused by the hurricane. The IACHR also expresses its concern over the potential risk to people in the region posed by Hurricane José, currently a Category 3 storm, which is also in the Atlantic Basin.
In terms of recent seismic activity, the IACHR was in Mexico City on September 7 and experienced the earthquake, which measured 8.2 on the Richter scale. The areas that were hardest hit are located in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Tabasco, in southern and central Mexico, as well as in Guatemala and El Salvador. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto characterized the quake as the strongest in the last 100 years. According to the information available, 76 people have died in Oaxaca because of the earthquake, with Juchitán, Unión Hidalgo, Ixtaltepec, and Astata the hardest-hit towns; 16 have died in Chiapas; and 4 in Tabasco, which brings the death toll so far to 96.

Given the magnitude of the humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters and the effects of climate change, which could continue to worsen in the future, the IACHR reminds the States and the international community of the importance of providing immediate humanitarian assistance, which is essential to respond to the humanitarian crisis that affects the survivors of natural disasters.

The IACHR calls on the States in the region to adopt mechanisms of shared responsibility and collective response to the situation of those who are affected and displaced. The adoption of measures should include specific aspects while people are displaced and later returned or resettled. These include guaranteeing humanitarian assistance by establishing shelters equipped with food and water, as well as medical, sanitation, and educational services, and mechanisms that facilitate the recovery of people’s property and possessions, or access to compensation for material losses, as established in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. It is essential to recognize that these actions should go beyond humanitarian assistance, given that the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly severe. Steps should also include aspects that contribute to long-term preparation and resilience of these States and communities, such as providing training support to improve communication systems and prevention, and helping to develop programs to minimize the vulnerability of marginalized populations, as this is the only way to reduce their risk when the next natural disaster approaches.

Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, President of the IACHR, stated, “The natural disasters we are currently witnessing, along with the various impacts of climate change, show us two basic things. First, no country is immune to the impact of natural disasters and their humanitarian and human rights consequences. In addition, we can see how countries in the Caribbean, which tend to pollute less and therefore have less of an impact on climate change, are the ones feeling the greatest impact from this type of natural disaster.” Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas, the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants and Displaced Persons, added that “moments of crisis such as these force us as a region and as an international community to provide a coordinated response, invoking the idea of climate justice. In this sense, it is not enough to provide humanitarian assistance; rather, States must address their obligations regarding the human rights of those who have been displaced due to environmental factors. This means that in addition to any humanitarian assistance that may be provided after each natural disaster, States must also have in place recovery and prevention systems that are more sustainable.” For her part, Soledad García Muñoz, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights, stated, “At the Special Rapporteurship, we are going to pay particular attention to the impact of climate change and natural disasters on the effective exercise of human rights, particularly with respect to individuals, groups, and communities in vulnerable situations. We call on the States of the region to make an active commitment to protect, preserve, and improve the environment.”

The IACHR observes with utmost concern that a relationship exists between climate change and natural disasters, which are having a serious impact on the effective enjoyment of the human rights of millions of people, particularly people in a state of poverty or in vulnerable situations. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2017, extreme weather events top the list of global risks in terms of likelihood, followed next by large-scale involuntary migration and, in third place, major natural disasters. The United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has said that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, the average temperature of the Earth’s lower atmosphere could increase by more than 4 degrees Centigrade (7.2 Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st century. Enhanced heat is expected to lead to an increase in extreme weather events such as storms and hurricanes, which can have major, even lethal, effects on air quality, the WMO reported.

The IACHR also calls to mind that in the Brazil Declaration—“A Framework for Cooperation and Regional Solidarity to Strengthen the International Protection of Refugees, Displaced and Stateless Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean”—the States of Latin America and the Caribbean recognized the challenges posed by climate change and natural disasters, as well as by the displacement of persons across borders that these phenomena may cause in the region, and recognized the need to conduct studies on the matter with the aim of supporting the adoption of appropriate national and regional measures, tools, and guidelines, including response strategies for countries in the region, contingency plans, and integrated responses for disaster risk management and humanitarian visa programs, within the framework of its mandate.

The IACHR urges States to develop and implement mitigation, adaptation, and resilience programs to help ensure that countries and communities can be more independent, and to reduce the potential risks and destruction caused by natural disasters. The IACHR also calls to mind that the Paris Agreement, signed by 193 States and now ratified by 97, establishes that developed States are committed to helping developing States adapt to climate change, providing technology, advice, and funding.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and defense of human rights in the region, and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.