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After the tsunami - Human rights of vulnerable populations

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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Executive Summary

The tsunami of December 26, 2004 devastated thousands of communities along the coastline of the Indian Ocean. More than 240,000 people were killed. Tens of thousands went missing and are presumed dead, and more than a million people were displaced. Those most affected by the tsunami were the poor, including fi sher folk, coastal workers with small retail or tourist businesses, workers in the tourism industry, migrants, and those who farmed close to coastal areas. The majority of those who died were women and children.

Immediately following the tsunami, international aid agencies feared that human traffi ckers might seize the opportunity to compel those most vulnerable (women, children, and migrant workers) into situations of forced labor. Fortunately, few incidents of traffi cking were reported, although other human rights problems, including arbitrary arrests, recruitment of children into fi ghting forces, discrimination in aid distribution, enforced relocation, sexual and gender-based violence, loss of documentation, as well as issues of restitution, and land and property tenure soon emerged in certain tsunami-affected areas.

As we have seen in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which devastated coastal areas in the southern United States, natural disasters often catch national and local governments and relief agencies unprepared to deal with the massive exigencies of emergency relief and management, and can expose victims of these catastrophes to violations of human rights.

Victims of natural disasters are protected by a host of human rights treaties and agreements. Both the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Sphere Project's Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response protect victims of natural disaster and guide relief efforts to ensure that those displaced receive access to adequate and essential relief-including food, shelter, and medical care. These guiding principles maintain that internally displaced persons (IDP) have the right to request and to receive protection and assistance from national authorities who, in turn, have the primary duty and responsibility to protect and assist populations within their jurisdiction.

Natural disasters can exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities of populations already at risk. Poverty-stricken groups living in substandard housing, on unstable ground, or in fl ood plains are usually the principal victims of these disasters. Often these groups have experienced ongoing discrimination because of their ethnicity, religion, class, or gender, which has left them living in fragile physical environments. Moreover, pre-existing civil war or a history of ongoing human rights abuses can complicate or interfere with aid relief and reconstruction.

In countries where corruption and bureaucratic incompetence are rife, certain individuals and groups may manipulate their political connections to receive or distribute aid at the expense of others. Still other groups may receive little or no aid because of their ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or social standing. These abuses can leave individuals and families at risk and prolong the time they have to stay in poorly built and even dangerous camps and shelters for internally displaced people.

Isolated in camps, the internally displaced often are sidelined as government offi cials in distant towns and cities formulate and implement resettlement and rebuilding programs, sometimes in favor of special interests. Uncoordinated relief efforts run the risk of exacerbating these problems, especially where there is weak government oversight of the activities of international agencies and aid organizations. A tension can develop between government appropriating all decision-making to itself or allowing nongovernmental organizations to carry out their missions as they see fi t. Lack of a middle ground leaves survivors with no-one to turn to for assistance.

In March and April 2005, a little over two months after the tsunami struck, the Human Rights Center of the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with the East-West Center, dispatched teams of researchers to fi ve countries-India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Thailand-affected by the disaster to interview hundreds of survivors and key informants.

The specifi c objectives of the survey were:

1. to assess the nature and extent of pre-existing human rights problems and their impact on vulnerable groups prior to the tsunami;

2. to investigate violations of human rights in the post-tsunami period;

3. to examine the response of governments and aid agencies to reports of human rights abuses; and

4. to identify human rights violations that likely may develop or persist during the reconstruction phase.

Researchers used a semi-structured questionnaire to interview tsunami survivors and key informants in the fi ve countries under study. All participants gave verbal informed consent. In India, surveys were carried out along the coast of Tamil Nadu, the worst-hit state, in the districts of Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Kanyakumari, and Kancheepuram. In Sri Lanka, interviews took place in three provinces, Northeastern (Batticaloa and Ampara), Southern (Galle and Matara), and Western (Colombo). In the Maldives, research was conducted in Male', Hulhumale' and Guraidhoo. In Thailand, interviewers worked in eighteen communities on the coasts of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Finally, in Indonesia, fi eld research was conducted in nine refugee areas, Banda Aceh, Aceh Besar, Sigli, Bireuen, Pidie, Lloksuemawe, Aceh Utara (all in Aceh), Medan and Deli Serdang (in North Sumatra).

Six themes emerged from the survey data that were common to all the countries surveyed:

1. Exacerbation of pre-existing human rights violations. The tsunami exposed groups already suffering from discrimination and other human rights abuses to greater harm. Examples include government use of humanitarian aid rationales to secure military goals, corruption threatening property rights, lack of migrant protection, and gender violence.

2. Inequality in aid distribution. A number of vulnerable populations, in particular women and members of certain ethnic or religious groups, did not receive equal assistance. The research revealed multiple causes for maldistribution of aid, including discrimination towards certain ethnic, religious, or marginalized subgroups such as castes; inequities based on political infl uence; bureaucratic ineffi ciencies; and exclusion of specifi c groups based on government defi nitions of victimhood.

3. Impunity and lack of accountability. There was virtually no accountability of governmental or other aid providers for the reported corruption, arbitrariness in aid distribution, and violations of international standards that protect the human rights of survivors of natural disasters. Contributing factors included the lack of state action in responding to tsunami victims, lack of independent redress mechanisms, lack of political will to investigate abuses, and lack of reporting of human rights violations by humanitarian aid agencies.

4. Poor coordination of relief aid. The sudden activity of large numbers of aid providers in tsunami-affected areas overwhelmed the capacity of states to effectively coordinate relief efforts. The efforts of multiple institutions and organizations providing relief were not harmonized because of a lack of coordination among humanitarian and aid agencies, different levels of government, competing agendas, and lack of NGO accountability.

5. Low public confi dence in coastal redevelopment. There is a lack of clarity among some coastal communities about the conditions under which coastal areas will be rebuilt. Policy makers, in some cases, have responded to the environmental damage with policy recommendations that appear to marginalize or even disenfranchise the poor.

6. Lack of community participation. Government and relief offi cials often failed to consult survivors and their communities about decisions regarding aid distribution, resettlement, and reconstruction aid. In some cases, these offi cials discredited or ignored the views and opinions of local communities. Donors and aid agencies often prioritized timely outcomes over deliberative processes that allowed for community participation and discussion.

To address these concerns, we recommend that the following measures be taken:

1. UN agencies and NGOs should take into account the prior human rights context of the particular country in their aid and reconstruction policies and programs. Non-state actors carrying out relief and reconstruction work should take into account the pre-existing vulnerabilities of groups due to armed confl ict, legal status, caste discrimination, or general restrictions on civil and political rights. Adopting a human rights framework will help humanitarian groups identify the most vulnerable and deliver assistance in a manner that does not compound vulnerabilities to abuse.

2. States should commission an independent survey of tsunami-affected areas to assess the process of aid distribution. The ultimate purpose of the survey should be to determine if the aid distribution process was conducted properly, fairly, and effi ciently, and if any vulnerable groups were overlooked. Recommendations for how to remedy those survivors who have not received payments should be made.

3. States should increase accountability and transparency of public and private aid providers. The national human rights commissions in the fi ve countries surveyed should monitor and report on their government's compliance with international human rights standards. States should create ombudsman offi ces for tsunami survivors that can adjudicate individual complaints during the reconstruction phase. An ombudsman would also be able to investigate individual allegations of human rights violations and to refer appropriate cases for prosecution under domestic law.

4. State agencies should strengthen coordination with UN and NGOs during the reconstruction phase of the tsunami catastrophe. In recent months, states have improved their knowledge and supervision of the type and quality of material donations and the number of NGOs operating within their territory. However, much more needs to be done to improve coordination among these agencies. A central registry should be kept of all national and international aid agencies involved in relief and reconstruction work so as to ensure that those organizations are legitimate. The UN should assume a leadership role in coordinating the reconstruction activities of NGOs and promoting synchronization between public and private rebuilding efforts.

5. States, international agencies, and local aid organizations should improve community participation in reconstruction planning and implementation. State reconstruction agencies should develop community-based consultation mechanisms that are legitimate and transparent. UN agencies and NGOs should participate in consultations so that all providers are working together with community members.

6. A human rights framework should inform coastal redevelopment and the reestablishment of land rights. Redevelopment planning should be transparent and NGOs and survivors should have the opportunity for legitimate consultation. In many areas there is uncertainty about land rights and in some instances disputes have turned violent. Expedited procedures should be put into place to establish title and occupation rights. The ombudsman offi ces, suggested above, could serve this function.

7. Particular attention must be paid to those affected by ongoing armed conflicts. It is apparent that war, political violence, and the priorities of warring parties will often be given precedence over assisting survivors. In these situations, the United Nations or other international mediating parties must provide leadership to secure a temporary cessation of fi ghting or a peace agreement in order to maximize the ability of humanitarian aid providers to help those in need.

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