climate

New book chapter: The rights of internally displaced persons in connection with natural hazard-related disasters

The book A Changing Environment for Human Security is out. It contains critical analyses, case studies and reflections on contemporary environmental and social challenges, with a strong emphasis on those related to climate change. My chapter focuses on internal displacement in connection with climate change and disasters. Get in touch if you would like a pre-print draft of the chapter.

The book is available here:
“The rights of internally displaced persons in connection with natural hazard-related disasters”, ch 14, in L. Sygna, K. O’Brien and J. Wolf (eds) A Changing Environment for Human Security: Transformative Approaches to Research, Policy and Action. Routledge.

My chapter begins by presenting the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. While the Guiding Principles apply to internal displacement in the context of climate change and natural hazard-related disasters, many states, UN agencies, NGOs and academics have continued to neglect or actively discriminate against persons displaced by disasters. Some crucial challenges are discussed. The chapter then moves on to the two case studies and explores what major issues arose in the context of the 26 December 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and how they were framed as human rights issues.

Non-discrimination is a paramount principle in human rights and was relevant in both disasters. For example, in connection with Katrina, rescue and evacuation plans were based on the assumption that people would use their private vehicles, indirectly discriminating against poor Afro-American communities who did not own private cars. In Sri Lanka, “buffer zones” were established along the coast in a discriminatory manner allowing construction of tourism facilities while local residents, particularly the poor and Tamils, were not allowed to return and reconstruct their homes.

Participation is another key element in dignity, human rights and contemporary international law in general. A common post-tsunami complaint was that IDPs were not consulted on decisions that affected them, including evacuations and issues of return, resettlement and reconstruction. There was a similar situation with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

On the basis of freedom of movement, Guiding Principle 28 spells out three durable solutions, including choosing to return home. This was yet another rights issue that arose. For conflict displaced persons, returning to the place of origin remains a (future) option, but in some disaster situations people simply cannot return. For example, during the tsunami some villages became part of the sea. As in the case of initial evacuation or relocation, it can only be for the safety and health of those affected that a state prohibits return to an area. According to the Guiding Principles, IDPs should also be protected against forcible return or resettlement to places where their life, safety, liberty or health would be at risk.

Although the contexts were very different, this chapter shows how major human rights principles such as non-discrimination and participation were seen as relevant in a western, developed country and developing, Asian countries.

The chapter then highlights some domestic as well as international developments after the disasters. In the aftermath of the tsunami there was increased international recognition of the importance of a human rights approach in dealing with those affected by disasters, as illustrated through for example the development of the IASC Operational Guidelines and Field Manual on Human Rights Protection in Situations of Natural Disaster. A transformation may be that we start seeing disasters not merely as natural, but rather see how human rights (violations) play a role in vulnerability and that human rights can be a framework for addressing displacement as well as disaster risk reduction, response, and recovery more generally.

The chapter concludes with a short consideration of how rights can be further promoted by turning the attention to humanisation. While we may recognise that all humans should have certain rights, we often dehumanise some people so much that they are no longer fully seen as humans that can claim such rights. This happened before, during and after the two disasters. One way of addressing this dehumanisation is through insisting on a human rights approach and storytelling and the internationalisation of the issues.

Driven Out By Drought - article in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs

The Spring 2013 issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, featuring Special Report: Humanity on the Move, is now online: http://www.thecairoreview.com/ 

My piece on Somalis displaced by drought to Kenya and Egypt is available here:
http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/CairoReview/Pages/articleDetails.aspx?aid=339

Global average temperatures are rising, and the weather is becoming wilder. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that climate change is a factor in certain disasters such as storms, floods and droughts. Population growth and density, poverty and armed conflicts are also contributing to a changing pattern in disasters. According to a study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 14.9 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters in 2011; the majority by climate-related disasters such as storms and floods. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled slow-onset disasters, such as the drought that developed into a famine in the Horn of Africa. Among them are Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt.


Those who flee persecution qualify for refugee status, according to the refugee definition of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. There are wider regional refugee definitions such as the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1969. This classified generalized violence and events seriously disturbing public order in the definition. For many of those displaced to another country in the context of disasters, however, there is no international legislation providing a clear and secure basis for their rights and protection. The Kenyan and Egyptian contexts offer an opportunity to understand what this means for people on the ground.