The Disaster Law Project

Disasters ● Displacement ● Human Rights



Nepal Earthquake: One Year Later

A massive 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015. The government effectively shut down just weeks later after lawmakers couldn’t agree on the provisions of a new national constitution. The National Reconstruction Authority disbanded as a result, and was recommissioned just recently after the new constitution was adopted.

Meanwhile, India, Nepal’s neighbor and strongest trading partner, blocked aid convoys from crossing into Nepal. Depending who you ask, that move was India’s attempt to flex some muscle against Nepal for constitutional proposals it disapproved of, or to protect drivers from confrontations with violent protesters across the border. Either way, the embargo lasted for four months, during which truckloads of food, and fuel, and building supplies languished on a highway while people inside Nepal slept in the rain without knowing when they would get their next meal.

Finally, the government says, a national reconstruction program is getting out of the gate. Let’s hope that’s true, because a lot of catch up is needed before any appreciable progress can be measured. One year later, here’s where things stand:

The toll:

  • 9000: people killed;
  • 1,000,000: homes destroyed;
  • 4,000,000: people still living under substandard temporary conditions.

The “progress”:

The money flow:

Reports also say that villagers in the hardest hit remote areas have yet to receive ANY governmental assistance, and still have not been reached by aid groups.

-Kathleen Bergin

Predatory Peacekeepers: The UN’s Failed Response to Rape and Sexual Exploitation in CAR

In March, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2272 in response to ongoing revelations that French and west-African peacekeepers raped and sexually exploited civilians they were deployed to protect in the Central African Republic.  The Resolution endorses a proposal by the Secretary General to return home the peacekeeping contingent of a country whose peacekeepers sexually abuse civilians.

Hold your applause.

The problem of predatory peacekeepers is decades old, having plagued operations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Cambodia, Haiti, the DRC, and Liberia – to name just a few countries.  More than a thousand accusations have surfaced since 2007 alone.  It’s easy then, to shrug off the Resolution as a last-minute attempt to restore the UN’s damaged reputation – at least until it delivers concrete results.

And whether that will happen, is doubtful. The Secretary General is in the process of formulating the procedures that would trigger repatriation, but the individuals he chose to lead that effort are the same high-ranking UN officials, as described by the Code Blue campaign, whose “negligence, indifference and subsequent cover-ups compounded the horrors” in CAR.

The Code Blue campaign is a special project of Aids-Free World, the advocacy group that uncovered the scandal in CAR.  The group derides the current proposal as “the fox guarding the hen house,” and calls for an independent oversight board that reports directly to member states and operates entirely separate from the UN.  Nothing in the current proposal, they say, “suggests the kind of change that needs to happen, to extirpate peacekeeping sexual abuse, once and for all.”

The potential for corruption and mismanagement may be the most problematic concern with Resolution 2272, but it’s not the only one.  Let’s take a look at some additional problems, Continue reading “Predatory Peacekeepers: The UN’s Failed Response to Rape and Sexual Exploitation in CAR”

Flint Water Crisis: A Human Rights Failure

The US Human Rights Network’s National Human Rights To Water and Sanitation Coalition calls attention to the Flint water crisis as a human rights violation that disproportionately impacts people in marginalized communities. From the press release:

[A]ccess to safe, affordable, and clean water is an internationally recognized universal human right. Just this past October, members of our coalition testified at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing on the Human Right to Water in the Americas. In Flint and across the country, the water crisis in the U.S. is also a crisis of economic class and racially-based discrimination that disproportionately impacts poor people, communities of color, Indigenous Peoples, migrants, women, people with disabilities, elders, children, the chronically ill, and other groups that have historically faced discrimination. Continue reading “Flint Water Crisis: A Human Rights Failure”

Nepal: What if Saving My Boys Means We Don’t Save Yours?

Everest RescueLet me be clear: if my boys are caught on Everest when the avalanche hits, I want the full thrust of the world’s resources put toward their rescue.

But what if saving my boys means to a mother down below that we won’t save hers?

This is why talk about “how to allocate resources” in the search and rescue phase of an emergency is so frustrating.  The discussion is so administrative, so technical, so mundane.  In reality, however, resource allocation decisions result in gut-wrenching consequences that need to be acknowledged and debated front and center.  We can sanitize it all we want, but the people who decide where the money goes (both before and after a disaster) also decide who lives and who dies.

Ben Wisner raised some thoughtful points on this issue in an exchange on the Gender and Disaster Online list-serve.  His comments are posted below, with permission: Continue reading “Nepal: What if Saving My Boys Means We Don’t Save Yours?”

Vanuatu: Does the “Cash For Work” Program Work for You?

Cash For Work - UNDP YolandaThe UNDP has implemented a “cash for work” program in Vanuatu.  In disaster speak, these programs are part of what are called “livelihood” initiatives aimed at restoring personal and social stability.  Despite some drawbacks, the obvious benefit is cash for necessary things like food, cooking fuel and building materials.  Residual benefits flow to business owners and market vendors who sell these things, and the (hopefully) local suppliers who produce them.  These programs also give survivors a measure of ownership and control over the reconstruction process – an important factor in psychological healing.

When done right, these programs provide work opportunities to both women and men.  They provide opportunities for the elderly, those with limited mobility, and those who live far away from established work sites.  Well-designed programs focus on work projects that directly benefit these groups, and involve representatives from these groups in their selection and administration. Continue reading “Vanuatu: Does the “Cash For Work” Program Work for You?”

If You’re in Vanuatu and Survived Cyclone Pam, Read This Now:

Read This NowYou have a right to life with dignity.

You have a right to adequate shelter, to food, to safe drinking water, and to sanitary hygiene facilities.  You have a right to health care, to remain with your family, to privacy.  You have a right to access humanitarian aid.

You have a right to be safe.

Your government owes you these and other rights.  They also owe you a remedy for the harm that’s caused when these rights are violated.

You also have a right to control your destiny.  A disaster response system has been put in place that may or may not have been designed with your input.  But the right to “consultation,” as lawyers call it, means that decisions about camps and shelters (and every other aspect of the response and resettlement) – whether made by the government of Vanuatu, the UN, an NGO, or other international actors – must reflect YOUR priorities, not theirs.  If you don’t have a seat at the table, if your voice is not being heard, then you are not being consulted.  And that is a human rights violation.

Have you heard that the recovery is slow because of logistics, or money, or the scale of devastation?  That certainly may be true.  Or it may not.  Continue reading “If You’re in Vanuatu and Survived Cyclone Pam, Read This Now:”

Sheltering Vulnerable Populations in Vanuatu – Lessons Unlearned

Cyclone Pam - Lessons UnlearnedA team of experts from ActionAid Australia recently visited evacuation shelters in Port Vila, Vanuatu to report on conditions facing women who have been displaced by Cyclone Pam.  Here’s what they describe:

Pregnant women are sleeping on thin mats on the ground.  Men and women share sleeping spaces.  The evacuation centers are barely lit at night, if lit at all.  At night time, women have to find their way in the dark to the toilets that are shared with the men.  There is nowhere to wash, except in the rivers.  Adequate sanitary items haven’t been distributed, and women are using toilet paper – if they have access to it.

There is a growing awareness that mega-disasters disproportionately affect women and other vulnerable populations, and that these groups have different needs than men following displacement.  And yet, vulnerable groups are routinely denied the measure of protection they deserve – protection they are entitled to under law – disaster after disaster after disaster.

Consider the 2011 Fukushima, Japan nuclear disaster that displaced more than 300,000 people.  Officials at multiple government-run shelters denied requests from evacuees to put up dividers, which meant that women were housed alongside men they didn’t know, and publicly exposed when changing clothes or nursing an infant.  Continue reading “Sheltering Vulnerable Populations in Vanuatu – Lessons Unlearned”

Human Rights Law Fellowship with IJDH

Want to be a human rights lawyer?  The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti has fellowships – 2 of them.  Two year fellowship is linked here.  One year fellowship is linked here.

I partnered with IJDH on housing related advocacy after the earthquake in 2010, so can tell you that this is a great opportunity with an amazing organization doing much-needed work.  They’re suing the UN, for goodness sake!

Seriously, you can’t get better than this.  Good luck!!


Welcome to the Disaster Law Center blog, a forum by and for people who work to protect human rights in disasters: lawyers, activists, practitioners, and most importantly, disaster survivors.

I’m Kathy Bergin, and I’m a lawyer.  An activist.  An agitator.  Perhaps we already know each other from my days as a Law Prof.  Maybe we worked together in NOLA following Hurricane Katrina or collaborated in Port au Prince after the earthquake Haiti.  And maybe we are connecting here for the first time.  Whatever the case – hello there, I’m glad you stopped by!

Since blogs need a moderator – I’m it.  But I hope to create a dynamic, evolving and supportive space that belongs not just to me, but to all of us.  So tell me – what projects are you working on, what campaigns should we be talking about?  Do you have knowledge to share, or do you want to learn something new about disasters and human rights?  Contact me, and together, we’ll get the word out here.

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