IFRC marks 20 years of disaster law as we step closer to a global disaster treaty

2004 tsunami
As IFRC marks 20 years of disaster law this year, we are witnessing a historic moment as states renew interest in international disaster law, and seriously consider and discuss the need for a global treaty on the protection of persons in the event of disaster.

Underpinning every disaster preparedness activity, response or recovery operation, and public health emergency, climate change adaptation initiative, whether large or small, is a network of laws, policies and plans which determine who does what, when and how. Without a strong legal base, preparedness and response activities can be uncoordinated and ineffective, often delaying urgent help to the people who need it most.

Early discussions on disaster law and the IFRC’s role in it began in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it formally became a priority for the IFRC. A working group was established with experts from across the humanitarian sector with IFRC nominated as the lead. Work began on an international disaster response law project in 2001, and in 2004 IFRC began its first legislative advocacy work in Fiji, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines.  

This work happened against the backdrop of the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake – to which the first IDRL delegate was deployed. These huge disasters highlighted the need for international disaster response law and generated further support for this emerging humanitarian sector.  

Isabelle Granger, IFRC’s Global Disaster Law Lead who was the IFRC Senior Legal Advisor to the tsunami response operation in 2005, says the Indian Ocean Tsunami response was a significant milestone for disaster law. 

“The Indian Ocean Tsunami was a huge international response. We saw great intent and help poured in, but like most of the world at that time, the countries affected had few pre-established rules for managing the incoming humanitarian response. 

“Issues ranged from the hindering of international assistance due to restrictive local laws –visas and customs approval processes were inadequate, complex and time-consuming, at the same time as laws that were too loose – allowing for inappropriate aid and assistance – old donated clothes piled up and food that wasn’t appropriate or even fit for consumption, went to waste and blocked ports of entry. 

“While hundreds of thousands of people were helped in the response, we knew there was a better, more effective way to help people and to coordinate a disaster response - the need for strong and well-implemented legal frameworks to manage an international response was evident. We and the world learnt a lot from this disaster, and it became a defining moment for what we now know as disaster law.” 

In 2007, after extensive research, IFRC published the Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance (IDRL Guidelines), with input from more than 140 states, 140 National Societies and 40 international organisations and non-governmental organisations.

The IDRL Guidelines help governments prepare their disaster laws and plans to mitigate the common regulatory problems in international disaster response operations. The Guidelines were adopted during the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, have been cited by 22 resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, are referenced in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and have informed the substance of the ILC’s Draft articles on the protection of persons in the event of disasters

In 2010, IFRC officially moved beyond international disaster response law, broadening its scope across all phases of disaster - preparedness, response and recovery, and across crosscutting issues such as climate change adaptation, displacement, and the protection of vulnerable groups. 

The impact of IFRC’s disaster law work in the past 20 years is significant, both in terms of the sustained and systematic work for the strengthening, development and adoption of domestic disaster laws and in terms of IFRC’s contribution to the development of the doctrine of customary international law. 

Isabelle Granger says the biggest impact of disaster law, while hard to measure, is ultimately how it helps people in times of disaster and emergency.

“It’s hard to look at a response and say that an action is because of strengthened regulation – there are so many important parts to the response, but we know that regulation is the foundation of disaster risk management systems and a good foundation is crucial. 

“When I think about the complicated response 20 years ago following the tsunami, and today Indonesia has one of the most advanced disaster risk governance frameworks in the world, supported by strong and well-implemented laws and regulations, which improves how they respond, how they keep people safe– I know IFRC disaster law recommendations have borne fruits and are saving lives. 

Today, as we experience more frequent and increased disasters, feel the impacts of climate change and have recently experienced the COVID-19 pandemic – it is clear – the need for strong and relevant disaster laws that can keep people safe and save lives is greater than ever before. 

In October this year, a working group of the UNGA’s Sixth Committee will report back to the UNGA with a recommendation as to further action to be taken regarding the Draft Articles on the Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters.

Adopted in 2016, the Draft Articles address issues such as human rights and the protection of people in disasters, humanitarian principles, international cooperation, disaster risk reduction, and the responsibilities of states in external disaster assistance scenarios. They were developed with input from IFRC and using the IDRL Guidelines. 

“States continue to evolve their legislative and policy frameworks, but we need a comprehensive global framework for a unified and inclusive approach to disaster risk management.

“Twenty years on, it is now time to commit to the development of a global treaty, it would lay the groundwork for a cohesive global disaster risk management framework and be the significant step in disaster law, but more importantly be a way to further protect people and communities affected by disasters,” says Isabelle Granger. 

IFRC is marking 20 years of Disaster Law throughout 2024, with a proposed resolution for the  34th International Conference in October encouraging states to strengthen disaster risk governance as an indispensable element for effectively managing disasters and disaster risk. It also proposes to endorse new state-of-the-art recommendations – the Guidelines on Disaster Risk Governance: Strengthening Laws, Policies and Plans for Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management.