The U.N. headquarters in New York City shut down for an unprecedented three days after Hurricane Sandy tore through the eastern seaboard of the United States. Though global operations continued uninterrupted, the problems presented by the storm prompted Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, like many others, to reflect on the lessons learned from the storm.
Obvious implications immediately arising from Hurricane Sandy include a need for the U.N. to focus on “crisis governance, infrastructure, technology, staff support and communications, both internal and external.” The deeper meaning gleaned from the experience relates to making “a wise investment in our common future” that would “steer the world on a more sustainable path.” This requires acknowledgment of the effect human action has on changing weather patterns and extreme events and appropriate, concerted responses to those challenges.
These statements were predictably abstracted to a level that most would find difficulty disagreeing with. Action taken by the international community to weather-related catastrophes must include not only preparedness for responsive relief efforts, but long-term, preventative planning. In tangible terms, a comprehensive international legal instrument should be promulgated and adopted by 2015 and alternative, cleaner energy production should be increasingly explored and developed. A need for a comprehensive international instrument on humanitarian responses by governments was not expressed, though humanitarian agencies in the human rights community have self-regulated their actions under such a document.
Ban Ki-Moon’s remarks are indicative of a deeper deficiency: a general failure on the part of national governments to solemnly respect, protect, and fulfill the host of human rights and their substantive content. A pervasive obstacle to achieving a greater human rights culture worldwide is the lackluster effort on the part of many governments to implement human rights as human rights.
There is no specific right to protection or relief from natural disasters or to a humanitarian catastrophe. Where a response is engaged, the immediacy of those situations almost universally negates any practical ability to realize minimum standards for victims. When such relief efforts have been ongoing since the 1950s, as is the case with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), one would then expect conditions for victims and displaced persons to have developed into a relatively efficient and comprehensive system.
Speaking during a Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) debate, Malaysia’s representative noted that with the increasing amount of refugees in UNWRA camps, “[i]t was Hurricane Sandy everyday in those camps.” Though the relationship of the Palestinian people to a government is sui generis, the U.N. would certainly be held to the human rights standards it has promulgated in its role as parens patriae. The decades-long UNRWA operation has not resolved the situation of the refugees, and the status of Palestinian refugees is perpetuated generation to generation, facilitating the exponential growth of a refugee population living under the UNWRA mandate. The daily situation in the Niger Delta was also recently compared to the temporary effects of Hurricane Sandy on the U.S. northeastern seaboard. These comparisons are not only inapt, but serve to remove the experiences of victims from their context and place them side by side in a vacuum where some are certain to be relegated to a status of “not that bad” on the arbitrary disaster scale.
Human rights implicated in natural disasters such as hurricanes include the rights to life, health, housing, work, and adequate standards of living as well as the rights of specific categories of persons such as refugees, displaced persons, or victims. Legal duties placed on governments under binding international human rights law are largely framed in negative terms – governments are largely held to refrain from acts that would violate these rights. Where an act of god creates a situation where the enjoyment of these rights is impaired, the legal and political obligations of states remains nebulous though the moral obligations are clear.
The status quo of human rights culture within governments tends to be one of two scenarios. Implementation of human rights standards can be cautiously performed near the legal minimum through relativistic or idiosyncratic interpretation and adherence. In this way the lofty sentiment of human rights values is not outwardly rebuffed, but this lacking commitment allows for greater ability to sidestep obligations in practice. This adequately covers the varying position of states that tend not to ratify human rights instruments. The other trend is that implementation and observance of human rights is comprehensive in scope, but mechanically so. This results in a culture where the promotion of human rights is merely a function of government, which denigrates human rights protections into nothing more than a function that governments are just supposed to do. In these instances, political rhetoric may be completely dogmatic and satisfactory to the public, but in practice there is a more profound discontent among the holders and exercises of human rights.
If Ban Ki-Moon’s blueprint for international action for the next three years is successful and an environmental agreement that focuses on sustainability and climate is adopted, it is doubtful that a concurrent increase in governmental commitment to mainstreaming a human rights approach will accompany it. The celerity and efficiency under which recovery efforts in New York City (at least in Manhattan) proceeded have been described as “miraculous” or “border[ing] on magic,” but never did the Metropolitan Transit Authority refer to its actions as restoring rights. Pre-election partisanship was put aside by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to concentrate on relief efforts and he has now been lambasted as the scapegoat for Mitt Romney’s loss of the presidential election. Businesses are being sued for price-gouging related to Hurricane Sandy, yet the accountability of non-state actors such as corporations and businesses is not being discussed as a rights issue despite business and human rights being a hot topic in both the United Nations and in the Supreme Court of the United States.
Catastrophic events always remind us of the things we could have done or should do better. What they less detectably reveal is the sincerity and depth of governmental commitment to human rights philosophy and to realizing the content of human rights protections. Hurricane Sandy reminded us that state dedication to and accountability for the welfare and dignity of its people remains an elusive pursuit. Even if reconstruction efforts and relief for victims is primarily conducted under economic and propertarian pretenses, dialogue should remain couched in morality and rights-speak so that human rights culture is better ingrained in people and their governments.