Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Katrina and human rights

Noah Leavitt thinks the US government's failures to respond adequately to support those seriously affected by hurricane Katrina should be viewed as a humand rights disaster. Actually a UN independent expert on human rights who went into the disaster area in the immediate aftermath said as much in his report last November but no one took much notice.

"Last week, almost six months to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated America's southern coastline, the Associated Press released a shocking video. The footage shows President Bush being briefed, point-by-point, about the almost certain likelihood that the levees around New Orleans would not withstand the storm and the city would be flooded. At no time did the President ask any questions about the information provided to him.

The interaction captured in the video directly contradicted the President's frequent assertions that had he known the extent of the risk, his government would have taken steps to prevent the massive disasters that followed.

Originally, the Administration's failure to act effectively to address the consequences of the storm was seen, in part as a lapse in judgment or an administrative blunder. But after the video was released, views on the Administration's - and in particular, the President's - state of mind changed dramatically. After seeing the footage, some Congresspersons called for further inquiries into the federal government's failure to assist the tens of thousands of people in dangerous and often desperate circumstances. Others suggested opening criminal investigations.

Yet, the video suggests another possible way of analyzing the government's failures - that its abysmal performance after the flooding violates international obligations - as established in treaties and other binding law that the U.S. has agreed to uphold, and has urged other nations to uphold.

As I will explain, understanding this issue as a breach of human rights is critical, for a number of reasons. It has led to new strategies for relief and redress, and it has brought the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into the picture...

Oxfam International recently reported that almost 750,000 people remain displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And a situation that in theory, ought to be improving daily as the government addresses it, is only getting worse for many: More than 7,000 people are facing imminent evictions despite the fact that they do not have adequate housing replacement.

Thus, there is a third area in which international norms can be meaningful - that of "Internally Displaced Persons" (IDPs).

International law defines IDPs as people forced to leave their homes because of natural disaster, domestic strife or other such problems, and who have not crossed international borders. (This last requirement distinguishes them from refugees, who cross international borders fleeing persecution.)

Because of the large number of IDPs around the world, the UN has approved Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement that delineate states' obligations to IDPs within their borders.

Since as early as July 2001, the U.S. has said that all countries should apply the norms set forth under these Principles, and has authorized its U.S. Agency for International Development policies to do so.

Yet, the White House is now ignoring that commitment. For example, Principle 18 states that IDPs have a right to basic shelter, housing, and medical care, and that they must fully participate in decisions regarding their future in partnership with "competent authorities." Yet, the federal government callously ended payments for evacuees' temporary hotel stays without providing any alternative arrangements, and before the evacuees were able to get on their feet...

International human rights norms, including obligations the U.S. has stated it approves and will abide by, provide another avenue for understanding the failure to adequately respond last year. Calling upon the U.S. to comply is only calling upon it to do what it calls upon other countries to do: The U.S., rather than being a human rights beacon in the world, increasingly claims exceptions to the rules it says everyone else must follow. Unlike with imprisoned detainees, with Katrina victims, the rights violations are often out in the open, for everyone to see - in the form of suffering people, and, too often, corpses."

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