international law of disaster relief
By Warren Kessler

A common thread that runs through The International Law of Disaster Relief is introduced early; the legal framework for disaster response is nearly as random as the events themselves.

Whether it is the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, or this year’s devastating droughts in East Africa, there is no shortage of human victims of natural disasters. Despite this omnipresent threat, laws at the international and domestic levels are inconsistent at best and, at worst, can exacerbate a crisis. What is the best course of action for a host state and the worldwide community for before and after a disaster occurs? What rights must be protected and what kinds of corresponding duties and obligations are present? It is these questions, along with their many uncertainties and legal underpinnings with which the contributors and editors of The International Law of Disaster Relief wrestle.

In response to Japan’s devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the corresponding Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the Four Societies (consisting of the international law societies of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and the United States) focused their 2012 conference on the international law of disasters. This volume, based on that conference’s call for papers, is a comprehensive collection of 17 proposals, policy papers, and case studies. The individual contributors tend to come from one or several of three general backgrounds: universities, government legal advisory positions, and NGO’s – and the individual articles certainly reflect this. Nearly every article touches on the varying roles of specialists, governments (both host nations and outside nations), and the increasing scope and power of NGOs in times of disaster. The contributors offer recommendations for the future as well as thoughts on the effectivity of each of these actors in past crises.

Many of the articles focus on the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance (“IDRL Guidelines”) and the UN Draft Articles on Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters. The decision to include both texts in full as appendices is particularly helpful to a reader who is presented with this topic for the first time.

There are several themes that run through nearly all of the articles: the inadequacy of current frameworks, the importance of preparedness and planning ahead, the humanitarian roots of disaster relief law, and the conflict between sovereignty and outside relief.


A recurrent theme in the book is that the current hodgepodge of non-binding laws, guidelines, and recommendations is not sustainable and is not nearly as effective as it should be. The rationale behind creating a more efficient international system of disaster response is that for every botched recovery, delayed flight into a disaster zone, or episode of political grandstanding prior to allowing a response team into an affected nation, lives are lost. Imogen Saunders, while discussing sources of international law, refers to the current infrastructure as “scarce.” In her chapter addressing the Japanese response to the release of nuclear material into the Pacific, Yukari Takamura credits the confusion to “lacunae in international rules.” Ibironke T. Odumosu-Ayanu argues that the current legal framework regarding economic emergencies has led to “inadequate” responses.

Additionally, several contributors discuss the conflict between the “top-down approach” (creating rules and principles at the international level with the purpose of effecting individual domestic frameworks) and the “bottom-up” approach (developing such laws and principles at the domestic level with the expectation that these will develop into regional and international norms).


In the first chapter, Daniel Farber introduces his “cycle of disaster law,” and places a premium on risk mitigation. He, along with several other contributors remind the reader that the first step to lessening the severity of a disaster is preparing for it ahead of time. Paul Govind, in his chapter on the benefits and difficulties of funding disaster risk reduction programs, argues that adapting to climate change is inherent in the preparation and mitigation of the effects of disasters.

Preparedness is explored in a variety of ways. Several chapters are devoted to the importance of preparing for disaster by developing legal frameworks to assist the most vulnerable, including the disabled, women, and migrants. Brian R. Israel offers an interesting insight into space-based remote sensing technology and argues that preparedness means developing frameworks for utilizing and sharing technology with efficacy and agility.


While justifying the importance of a legal regime, many of the contributors remind the reader that disaster relief as a doctrine is based on the same principles and norms of humanitarian law, a much more developed area of international law. Whether it is Katie Sykes’s argument for deriving rights for migrants from existing legal frameworks in times of disaster, or Akiko Ito’s discussion of the challenges presented to the disabled, the book regularly reminds the reader of the devastating effects that disasters have on individuals.


Several chapters discuss the importance of working with and around national sovereignty when dealing with disaster-stricken nations. In Catherine Shanahan Renshaw’s aptly titled chapter “Disasters, Despots, and Gun-Boat Diplomacy,” the author uses the response to Cyclone Nargis to discuss the limits of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and shows that, based on Myanmar’s opposition to outside assistance directly after Nargis in 2008, it is incorrect to assume that a disaster-stricken country will always want outside assistance. Brian Israel’s chapter on space-based technology also inherently deals with a nation’s discontent with being sensed from space by a different nation or a private company’s satellite, even in the case of an emergency. While sovereignty remains a time-honored tradition and is at the root of international law, it can also greatly limit the ability of outside nations and groups to alleviate suffering inside an impacted nation.


It seems that every month there is another city being wiped away, or another nation on a fault line crumbling at its seams. The Four Societies has put together an accessible guide to the current state of the law of disaster relief and many of its challenges and controversies. For any reader interested in this emerging field, The International Law of Disaster Relief serves as an excellent introduction.