Legal issues from the international response to tropical storm Stan in Guatemala

Originally published


A case study commissioned by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) Programme (April 2007)


The effects of Tropical Storm Stan (hereinafter "Stan") in early October 2005 were felt profoundly in Guatemala. The storm brought days of heavy rain and floods throughout the country, as well as to Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. For Guatemala, Stan was an even greater disaster than Hurricane Mitch of 1998, resulting in hundreds of deaths, hundreds of thousands of persons displaced and infrastructure damage across nearly 70% of the national territory.

Even before the Guatemalan government's declaration of a State of National Disaster on 5 October and its international appeal for humanitarian aid on 8 October, many international actors, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), United Nations (UN) system agencies and other inter-governmental organizations, had joined governmental bodies at national, regional, municipal and local levels, the Guatemalan Red Cross Society, and other domestic actors in providing emergency relief to affected communities.

The purpose of this report is to examine the legal and regulatory issues raised by the international response to Stan in Guatemala. Its focus is on how existing laws and policies impacted on the international relief and recovery effort during the period of declared national disaster and the early reconstruction phase in late 2005. Relevant laws and policies include those established to prevent and respond to disasters as well as a range of others, such as those regulating: legal recognition of relief organizations; tax status of NGOs; customs clearance and import duties; and visas for relief workers. Attention is also given to the regional frameworks that exist to coordinate disaster prevention and responses in Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic. These mechanisms have been an important development in a region prone to natural occurrences such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods and landslides, which have historically led to large-scale human disasters.

It is not the aim of this report to criticize the Guatemalan Government or relief providers, but rather to provide an analysis of how the systems worked during the first major disaster since many of the most relevant laws and mechanisms were established. Based on a study of the relevant laws, as well as on reports, interviews and a workshop with many of those closely involved (see Annex B), this case study is intended to contribute to a process of reflection already under way at the national level as well as to discussions at the regional and international levels. While it has been carried out in parallel with the organizational evaluations and reporting processes of many key actors in their areas of specialization, it brings a different perspective by analyzing the relevant legal framework as a whole. In doing so, it seeks to record the processes that ran well and smoothly, as well as to highlight challenges that may be addressed through strengthening the laws, regulations and policies, and indeed the institutions responsible for their implementation.