Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Tsunami Aid and International Law

Criticism of the humanitarian response to the tsunami in South Asia has shifted from early accusations of inadequate relief flows to concerns that donor nations, rebel groups, and affected governments are playing politics with relief efforts. Reports that the US is (and arguments that it should be) using its relief effort to prosecute the war on terror can be found here and here. At least one Islamic party in Indonesia has also been accused of making politics out of altruism. And the Indonesian government has faced steady criticism (here, here and here) of its efforts to control the activities of foreign and aid workers, journalists and international NGOs in Banda Aceh and to limit the presence there of US and other foreign troops who provided crucial relief in the first days after the disaster. Earlier today, the UN called on the Indonesian military to turn over relief operations in Aceh to civilian agencies.

In Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch reports that children orphaned by the tsunami may now be facing forced conscription into the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), whose 2002 ceasefire with the Sri Lankan government appeared to be weakening in the weeks before the tsunami hit. And recent reports that American-based Christian aid groups are preaching the gospel while delivering assistance have renewed concerns about the appropriate role of religion in humanitarian operations.

None of this is new or surprising. For years those in the humanitarian aid community have struggled with this central dilemma of international aid work: what should we do when the altruistic goal of helping people clashes with other norms of international law? For example, what do you do if a repressive host government limits or places conditions on access to the people and areas affected by a disaster? Is there a danger that aid and assistance delivered by military personnel rather than civilians will be seen as non-neutral, or a part of a government's war effort? What if you have reason to believe that your aid will go only to those civilians who support the government, and not to villages thought to be supportive of the rebel groups? Or that your assistance will go to rebel groups who will use it to fight the war? Or that it is conditioned on affiliation of one or another religious group?

Last week, ASIL published this useful primer on the rules governing disaster assistance written by David Fidler. He notes that what law exists is not terribly helpful:

In 2000, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation) argued that, despite the existence of some treaty law relating to disaster relief:

At the core is a yawning gap. There is no definite, broadly accepted source of international law which spells out legal standards, procedures, rights and duties pertaining to disaster response and assistance. No systematic attempt has been made to pull together the disparate threads of existing law to formalize customary law or to expand and develop the law in new ways. . . . There are no universal rules that facilitate secure, effective international assistance, and many relief efforts have been hampered as a result.

While the scientific community has responded quickly to develop better detection methods and information sharing to prepare for future tsunamis, the aid community is only just starting to ask the questions. I will be following this issue over the coming weeks and months.