Written by Mari Luz Kerkhoven

Keywords: natural disasters, human rights framework, interests, foreign aid


In the first few months of 2022 there have already been several natural disasters including floods, earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis (EM-DAT, n.d). In 2021 alone, there were over 400 natural disasters which killed 13,847 people and affected more than 73 million others (EM-DAT, 2022). As a result of climate change, it is only expected that the number of natural disasters will increase as well as their impact and severity (Barber, 2008, p. 432; UN, 2021). In the last two decades, scholars and practitioners have become increasingly concerned about incorporating a human rights framework in responses to natural disasters. Although natural disasters have often not been explicitly incorporated into human rights treaties, states cannot forego human rights obligations in the aftermath of a natural disaster as “human rights instruments apply to disaster situations as to any other situation” (Lauta, 2016, p. 95). Despite this concern of incorporating a human rights framework in the response to natural disasters, several governments have misused natural disasters to further political goals. This has often deteriorated the situation for survivors and even violated their human rights. This article will aim to set out the ways in which governments have used natural disasters for their own political gains. Furthermore, although the international community is increasingly emphasizing the respect of human rights in relation to natural disasters, that same community has sometimes created the conditions in which governments are able to misuse those disasters. To reach this conclusion, the following section will set out the growing concern for human rights in the aftermath of natural disasters. Afterwards, the emphasis will shift to the ways in which governments have misused natural disasters.

Natural disasters and the human rights discourse

Overall, natural disasters are exogenous events, in the sense that they are acts of nature and largely unpredictable (Bjørnskov & Voigt, 2021, p. 21; Wood & Wright, 2016, p. 1448). However, the impact of a natural disaster is not exogenous as it is shaped by government policies, preparedness, and responses (Bjørnskov & Voigt, 2021, p. 2; Cohen & Werker, 2008, p. 795; Kehoe, 2020, p. 125; Wood & Wright, 2016, p. 1448). That is why some emphasize that it is not the ‘natural’ part of hazards that creates disasters, but the way governments have prepared for and react to those hazards (Bjørnskov & Voigt, 2021, p. 2; Kehoe, 2020, p. 125). This also helps explain why natural hazards can have a great social and political impact on a country. For example, people may feel that aid is distributed unequally throughout the country which could give rise to political grievances and dissent, sometimes even resulting in conflict (Le Billon & Waizenegger, 2007).                                                                      

As mentioned in the introduction, natural disasters are often not mentioned explicitly in human rights treaties. Nevertheless, human rights should be adhered to in every kind of situation, thus also including disasters (Lauta, 2016, p. 95). Furthermore, states by adopting international human rights law have the “legal obligation to respect, protect, facilitate, and fulfill human rights” (Da Costa & Pospieszna, 2015, p. 68). In international law there are only very limited ways for states to derogate from their human rights obligations. Derogation mechanisms can only be invoked in cases of “public emergency threatening the life of the nation, such as an armed conflict” (ICRC, n.d.). And even then, it is not that straightforward. Furthermore, international bodies have increasingly emphasized the importance of adhering to human rights during and after disasters. In 2006, the United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) adopted a set of ‘Operational Guidelines for Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters’ which were updated again in 2011 (Lauta, 2016, p. 98). According to these guidelines, the protection of persons in situations of natural disasters should be in accordance with the relevant bodies of law, such as Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, and Refugee Law (Lauta, 2016, p. 98). Although these guidelines are addressed to international and non-governmental organizations (NGO), more emphasis has been placed on the human rights obligations of states during natural disasters. The International Law Commission has developed draft articles for the ‘protection of persons in the event of disasters’ which include that “persons affected by disasters are entitled to the respect for and protection of their human rights in accordance with international law” (ILW, 2016, p. 3). Thus, despite the absence of incorporating natural disasters into human rights treaties, there have been several efforts to emphasize the responsibility of states towards their citizens during and after a natural disaster. Furthermore, there have been rulings in which the (human rights) obligations of states towards their citizens during and after natural disasters have been emphasized. One prominent example is a case against the Russian Federation under the European Court of Human Rights in which the court ruled that the Russian Federation has an obligation to safeguard lives from a natural risk and “provide effective deterrence against threats to the right to life” (ECHR, 2008, p. 25; Lauta, 2016, pp. 104-105). This deterrence had not happened in the case as the Russian Federation had not replaced a mud retention dam in the town of Tyrnauz (Lauta, 2016, pp. 104-105). This ruling clarifies that states “may also violate human rights by not engaging in disaster risk reduction, which, if undertaken, could have prevented the occurrence of a disaster” (Da Costa & Pospieszna, 2015, p. 69).

Misusing natural disasters

The former section showed that states have the responsibility to protect their citizens before, during, and after natural disasters. Nevertheless, there have been instances in which governments have used natural disasters to further political goals, often to the detriment of the population.                      

Firstly, states have misused natural disasters to remain in power and maintain the status quo. Aid responses aimed at aiding survivors and rebuilding efforts have been used for political survival (Bjørnskov & Voigt, 2021, p. 1; Howitt, Havnen & Veland, 2012, pp. 51-52; Timms, 2011, p. 1361; Wood & Wright, 2016, p. 1453). Governments can choose to only distribute aid to their constituents and supporters. For example, after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka were minimal and “even though the majority of tsunami-hit homes were still in ruins, the one exception was the president’s own electoral district in the south” (Klein, 2007, p. 404). Furthermore, after that same tsunami opposition areas in Indonesia were denied the same amount of relief as other areas (Cohen & Werker, 2008, p. 805). Governments can thus use aid as a political tool to benefit their own constituents and maintain support. Besides, aid can be used to weaken potential rivals by spending less on disaster prevention in hostile regions (Cohen & Werker, 2008, p. 804). A lot of aid after a natural disaster comes from foreign countries and donors. In 2020, the European Union (EU) alone spent 2 billion euros on humanitarian aid to countries, which includes relief to both natural disasters and human-made disasters (European Commission, 2021; European Commission, n.d.). Foreign aid is even distributed when governments are using aid to pursue their own political goals. As Cohen and Werker (2008) show, “international organizations will tolerate higher levels of theft to deliver urgently needed aid” (p. 797). However, governments also misuse this knowledge by increasing their level of theft to keep aid flowing in (ibid). Governments may know that they will be bailed out in the event of a disaster and invest less in disaster prevention, thereby deliberately neglecting the protection of their population to attract and later steal the humanitarian aid that international organizations are providing (ibid). As international organizations still want to mitigate the effects of the disaster for the population and aid often has to go through governments, they will tolerate higher levels of theft if that means that the population will receive aid (ibid). Although this does not mean that no aid should be given in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it is important to keep in mind that aid does not always end up in the hands of the rightful recipients and can be consciously misused by governments.     

A second way in which governments have misused natural disasters is by pushing through policies that would not have been accepted before and increasing repression in the aftermath of a natural disaster (Bjørnskov & Voigt, 2021, p. 22; GHRD, 2021; Klein, 2007, p. 386; Timms, 2011, p. 1360; Wood & Wright, 2016, p. 1446). Governments have used natural disasters to gain control over specific resources, property, or wealth, especially regarding minority groups (Howitt et al., 2012, pp. 51-52). Naomi Klein (2007) coined the term ‘disaster capitalism’ to show how (natural) disasters are used to impose capitalist economic policies (Timms, 2011, p. 1357). An example is found in Honduras, where hurricane Mitch (1998) was used to relocate small-farming peasant communities living within Celaque National Park. Originally, the national park had been created due to required environmental programs as part of the neoliberal structural adjustment policies of the 1990’s (ibid). However, the Cloud Forest Law of 1987 allowed residents to remain in the park if there was no further forest clearance (Timms, 2011, p. 1367). Furthermore, the population did not harm the national park, before the relocation there was actually an increase in mature forests (Timms, 2011, p. 1373). Nevertheless, after hurricane Mitch, assistance was only offered to households that relocated to resettlement areas outside of the park (Timms, 2011, p. 1368). As a result of this relocation, the park actually suffered from human caused degradation (Timms, 2011, p. 1370). Forest had been converted into plantations for coffee production which used the cheap labor created by the relocation (Timms, 2011, p. 1373). The natural disaster thus served to benefit economic interests of the coffee plantations.                                                 

Another example of pushing through unpopular policies benefiting economic interests is found in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka. Whereas before the tsunami, many fisher families lived on the beach, the tsunami cleared the beaches completely (Klein, 2007, pp. 386-387). After the tsunami a buffer zone was created in which homes were not allowed on the beach and “everything had to be at least two hundred meters back from the high-water mark” (Klein, 2007, p. 387). However, this rule did not apply to the tourism industry and hotels were encouraged to expand (Klein, 2007, p. 388). After the tsunami, a task force was created by the Sri Lankan president for the development of the nation (Klein, 2007, p. 396). This task force was completely made up of business executives, where five out of ten members had direct holdings in the beach tourism sector (Klein, 2007, pp. 396-397). This was in line with earlier efforts of the government to transform the Sri Lankan beaches into high-end tourist destinations (Klein, 2007, p. 388). These efforts had been met with fierce protests (Klein, 2007, p. 394). But as the tsunami created chaos and hardship, the opportunity arose for the government to push through this policy. The development plan to transform the beaches into tourist destinations was to be financed by “aid money raised in the name of the victims of the tsunami” (Klein, 2007, p. 389).                                                 

Natural disasters also help implement policies that are aimed at the repression of particular groups in society. In 2021, an earthquake hit Tibet and when Chinese authorities began rebuilding the affected areas “they destroyed not only the affected houses and monasteries but also those which were not affected” (GHRD, 2021). They replaced traditional Tibetan structures with more Chinese-style homes (GDHR, 2021). This is in line with repression of ethnic and religious minorities by the Chinese government for Chinese unity (Free Tibet, 2021, as cited in GHRD, 2021). As Wood and Wright (2016) show, natural disasters can increase repression of the state against their citizens (p. 1446). Disasters often increase grievances and existing tensions between state and society (Wood & Wright, 2016, pp. 1447-1448). As mentioned above, states might benefit certain groups over other groups while providing relief and aid. Furthermore, natural disasters might decline state control over the affected areas (Wood & Wright, 2016, p. 1448). Both political grievances and declined state control create opportunities for dissent, and to reassert control state authorities will more likely employ coercive measures (ibid). However, as the examples above show states also employ repressive measures to further certain political goals. Repression is thus not necessarily a response to increasing dissent and decreasing state control. 

Role of the international community

As already outlined above, governments might misuse foreign aid. Although this does not mean that no aid should be given, we should keep in mind that aid might not benefit the rightful recipients. Furthermore, aid can shape domestic politics and donors often have their own agenda (Wood & Wright, 2016, p.1454). Both the relocation of the population of Celaque National Park and the development plan in Sri Lanka were influenced by foreign interests. International conservation agencies, such as Proyecto Celague, the NGO that managed the park, are funded by aid agencies such as the World Bank, USAID, the European Commission, and corporate sponsors (Timms, 2011, p. 1363). In Honduras, the formal protected area system, from which Celaque National Park is part of, was created under neoliberal structural adjustment policies supported by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Timms, 2011, p. 1367). As the Honduran government did not have the funds for the management of this system, control shifted from the state to international development agencies (ibid). As a result a German development agency managed the park and one of its funding priorities was resident relocation (ibid). Moreover, the foreign aid given to Honduras as well as other Central American countries was conditional on privatization of state companies, overturning land-reform laws facilitating the buying and selling of property for foreigners, and adopting a pro-business mining law “that lowered environment standards and made it easier to evict people from homes that stood in the way of mines” (Klein, 2007, p. 395).                         

In Sri Lanka the development project promoting tourism after the tsunami was supported by USAID, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (Klein, 2007, p. 391). Before the tsunami hit these entities were already very interested in promoting Sri Lanka as a high-end tourism destination. However, their ‘help’ was contingent on certain conditions including privatization of land ownership, more flexible labor laws, and modernization of the infrastructure (Klein, 2007, pp. 392-393). Sri Lankan people would pull the short straw as “millions of people would have to leave traditional villages to free up the beaches for tourists and the land for resorts and highways”, fishing would be dominated by large industrial trawlers, there would be mass layoffs at state companies, and prices of services would increase (ibid). However, as noted above there were massive protests and strikes against these policies (Klein, 2007, p. 394). Unfortunately, after the tsunami Sri Lanka needed the foreign aid to reconstruct homes, roads, schools, and railways which increased the opportunity of foreign donors to push through their demands (ibid).


Every year natural disasters tend to create deaths, hardships, and displacement. These events are exogenous and we cannot fully prevent them from ever occurring. Nevertheless, states might be able to mitigate the effects. Under international law states even have the responsibility to protect their citizens before, during, and after natural disasters. However, as this article has shown, natural disasters also create opportunities for states to pursue their own political goals and economic interests. Furthermore, natural disasters create opportunities for foreign countries and donors to push through their own agenda. In many instances foreign aid is contingent on several conditions that benefit foreign countries and companies but not the local population.                                                                                       

So, although the international community has become increasingly concerned about incorporating a human rights framework in the aftermath of natural disasters, that same community might keep an unequal system in check and push through policies that make the population worse off or even violate their human rights. To reverse this effect more accountability mechanisms should be created in which both the recipient countries of aid as well as the donor countries can be held accountable by their citizens, making sure that aid ends up in the hands of the rightful recipients. Then and only then, natural hazards might not turn into disasters.


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