The case for uniform disaster law

The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 2015.

There were the high heels sent to Samoa after Cyclone Evan in 2012, the shipment of bathtubs clogging up Tonga Customs after Cyclone Ian last year and the beef masala donated to the Hindu country of Nepal after the devastating earthquake in April.

Sending inappropriate, unnecessary aid to a country reeling from a big natural disaster is problem enough. But when life-saving equipment is held up in Customs for months or, in some cases, years, or desperately needed medical staff and engineers can’t obtain visas or have their qualifications recognised quickly, significant resources are wasted and more deaths occur.

 Red Cross volunteers in Vanuatu assess people’s needs after cyclone Pam in March. Photo: IFRC
Red Cross volunteers in Vanuatu assess people’s needs after cyclone Pam in March. Photo: IFRC

Lawyer Gabrielle Simm says climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of some weather events, such as cyclones, droughts and floods. When humans are poorly prepared to respond, it becomes a “disaster”. International disaster law, Dr Simm says, is gaining momentum as a priority for all countries – rich or poor – including Australia.

Dr Simm says that, unlike many other areas of international law, there is no uniform legal framework or international disaster law but a hotchpotch of treaties, guidelines and national laws.

“It causes unnecessary stress, adds to the chaos – even diplomatic tension – if you don’t have disaster laws that clearly map out the processes needed to receive aid,” says Dr Simm, a former diplomat in Laos.

Having a clear understanding of a country’s disaster laws lessens the likelihood of duplication or sending inappropriate aid. It also increases accountability when there are violations of international or domestic law, such as human trafficking or medical negligence.

Even developed countries can require help, she says, pointing out that the US needed international aid after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did Japan after an earthquake in 2011 and New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquake in the same year.

“No country is immune from disaster. With the increasing frequency and ferocity of disasters in the Asia-Pacific, we see a strong need for countries to be better prepared legally for mega-disaster response operations.”

Read the full article here.