Image: West Footscray Neighbourhood House

News Analysis

Human rights in emergency management

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has released its 2014 Report on the operation of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

The report includes investigations into key human rights concerns in Victoria in 2014 raised with the Commission by community organisations and statutory agencies. The report details human rights issues raised and governmental responses in the criminal justice system; police and protective services officers; discriminatory laws, policies and practices; the rights of Victorians with disabilities; and gender based violence.

Human rights are basic entitlements that belong to every one of us, regardless of our background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe. Based on the values of freedom, equality, respect and dignity, human rights acknowledge the fundamental worth of each person. The law places responsibilities on government and other public authorities to consider people’s rights when developing laws, policies and delivering services. Human rights are the cornerstone of strong, healthy communities where everyone can participate and be included.

This year’s report highlights emergency planning and management in Victoria does not always adequately consider the needs of particular people in the community who are more ‘at risk’ than others. This includes people with disabilities, children and young people, older people, and people from a CALD background.

The reports states:

It is essential that emergency planning and management supports human rights because ‘disasters are profoundly discriminatory when they strike – people facing disadvantage are more vulnerable and can be overwhelmed by such events’. People in emergencies have the right to expect that public authorities will implement measures to protect their rights, including the right to equality, the right to life, and the right to seek and receive information (such as communication designed to protect people in emergencies).

VCOSS is pleased to note that a number of government reviews and projects are addressing the needs of various groups within communities, including CALD, Aboriginal people and people who are deaf or hard of hearing. A review of the whole of Government communications strategy for emergencies is currently underway, as is the development of a Community Engagement Model.

The government can help vulnerable people by ensuring these reviews are inclusive of non-government organisations and agencies that support people facing disadvantage, in addition to business and industry. VCOSS has consistently warned that as disasters are profoundly discriminatory, engagement and communication with local community organisations as part of emergency planning and during emergencies is essential to ensure that all members of the community, particularly those who rely of community and social service organisations are well informed before, during and after an emergency event.

It is not unusual for human rights and equal opportunity to be considered in the light of emergency management. Many organisations that provide response, relief and recovery activities have human rights at their very core – Australian Red Cross for example.  The 2010-11 Canterbury earthquakes that devastated Christchurch were declared by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission to be New Zealand’s ‘greatest contemporary human rights challenge’. Its report Monitoring Human Rights in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, released in December 2013, stated that the right to adequate housing, health, property, education, as well as civil and democratic rights were all severely challenged. The report examined the human rights challenges that emerged during the recovery period, and calls for human rights standards to be the essential foundation for a fair and just recovery. The report states:

The human rights approach has a particular focus on individuals and groups that are vulnerable, marginal, disadvantaged or socially excluded. Bringing a human rights approach to recovery efforts focuses attention on the situation of such groups, and identifies relevant solutions.

Vulnerability does not belong to any one particular group but arises as a result of social, cultural and economic inequalities. Although natural disasters are indiscriminate in the devastation they cause to whole populations, international experience has repeatedly shown that the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised suffer most.

It has been suggested that the level of (earthquake) preparedness in particular is linked to socioeconomic indicators such as education, income and ethnicity. People living in poverty are less likely to pre-purchase supplies, to have insurance or to undertake earthquake strengthening of their homes. In addition people with lower incomes are generally less able to leave a disaster scene as a result of a lack of viable alternatives.

These comments reflect the experiences of community organisations and their clients that were impacted by the 2014 Hazelwood Mine fire and that were reported in VCOSS Submission to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission also stated:

Over the last two decades there has been a steady increase in the number of large-scale natural disasters and the scale of human and economic losses resulting from these. Traditionally, the primary focus of disaster recovery tends to be on the role of standard factors that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the recovery such as the scale of the damage, governance and legislative responses and aid. In the immediate aftermath, human rights considerations are often perceived as “nice to have” – an optional add-on to be considered after the important work is done.

Recently however, through initiatives such as the UN Disaster Risk Reduction Programme, there has been a growing global awareness of the vital importance of human rights intervention not only in the early stages of civil emergencies, but also as an integral component of disaster prevention and recovery. As part of this, the importance of tailoring solutions to facilitate cooperation and dialogue between national and local government, urban designers, property developers and affected people is being increasingly recognised.

There is also a greater awareness in disaster planning and recovery efforts of the significance of interrelated factors such as the psychosocial dimension of disasters, the role of community and volunteer participation, and the importance of capacity building and using technology efficiently to help recovery. A human rights approach provides a simple framework for action that strengthens capability and mechanisms for planning and responding to the kind of crises that may lead to human rights violations.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s resource Making Sure People Count in a Disaster provides a simple reference guide that can be used by everyone, everywhere, to ensure that human rights are placed at the centre of decision-making processes.