The Indian Ocean Tsunami and International Law

David P. Fidler
January 18, 2005
The tsunami in the Indian Ocean triggered by the massive earthquake on December 26, 2004, caused large-scale death and destruction in many countries and stimulated a significant relief effort from the international community. The unprecedented magnitude of this disaster raises questions about the role of international law with respect to preparing for, detecting, and responding to natural disasters. This Insight considers how international law has been used in connection with natural disasters and whether more active use of international law in this area should be pursued in the wake of the tsunami tragedy.
International Law and Disasters
Disasters are typically categorized as man-made (or technological) disasters and natural disasters. A body of international law has been developed to help states prevent, prepare for, and respond to technological disasters with potential transboundary effects, such as maritime, industrial, and nuclear accidents and emergencies. Many treaties in the area of technological disasters were developed after major incidents, in order to incorporate lessons states learned in handling such disasters. For example, treaties concerning emergencies involving nuclear energy facilities were concluded after the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. [1]
Natural disasters often trigger responses that involve many states, international organizations, and non-governmental actors. This multi-jurisdictional and multi-actor context would seem to call for using the tools of international law to help organize and facilitate preparation for, and responses to, natural disasters. Yet, international law has been little used to prepare for tsunami disasters specifically or to respond to natural disasters generally.
Tsunami Alert and Preparedness
Unlike technological disasters, states cannot cooperate and build regimes to prevent some natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. At best, states can deploy systems to provide early warning of events with potential to cause disasters and to prepare communities for such events. When disaster-causing events can affect a number of states, incentives exist for states to build multilateral regimes for disaster event alert and preparedness.
Tsunamis can be local, regional, or ocean-wide in their effects. The impact of tsunamis can be reduced by early detection of tsunamigenic seismic activity, dissemination of warnings, and activation of mitigation plans established through preparedness activities. A multinational Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific has functioned in the Pacific Ocean region since the mid-1960s. Formed in the aftermath of the destructive Pacific-wide tsunami of 1960, it is a multilateral endeavor operating through UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. [2]
No tsunami alert and preparedness system exists in the Indian Ocean region, despite warnings that the eastern Indian Ocean is extremely vulnerable to seismic activity that could cause tsunamis. [3] For example, Indonesia experienced six destructive local or regional tsunami events between 1977 and 1996. [4]
Building a tsunami alert and preparedness system in the Indian Ocean region may be a high diplomatic priority after the devastation experienced in December 2004. [5] This effort could take different forms, including simply extending or replicating the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific or elevating tsunami alert and preparedness as an international objective through adoption of a treaty. The treaty approach could provide a way for states vulnerable to tsunamis to establish a comprehensive global approach to tsunami alert and preparedness based on the lessons learned from the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific.
Disaster Relief and International Law
The importance of international law to the facilitation of disaster relief was recognized at least as early as 1927 in the Convention Establishing an International Relief Union, the preamble of which indicated that the states parties desired "to render aid to each other in disasters, to encourage international relief by a methodical co-ordination of available resources, and to further the progress of international law in this field." [6] The International Relief Union "marked the first and, to date, only instance when states attempted to launch a universal, treaty-based structure for disaster response and prevention . . . [but] [t]he Union never fulfilled its promised and perished along with the League of Nations System." [7]
The state of international law on disaster relief has for many years been considered inadequate. The administrator of the United Nations Development Programme observed in 1977 that many experts had suggested that "a convention is the best means available to resolve the complex tangle of issues surrounding disaster relief[.]" [8] In 2000, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation) argued that, despite the existence of some treaty law relating to disaster relief:
At the core is a yawning gap. There is no definite, broadly accepted source of international law which spells out legal standards, procedures, rights and duties pertaining to disaster response and assistance. No systematic attempt has been made to pull together the disparate threads of existing law to formalize customary law or to expand and develop the law in new ways. . . . There are no universal rules that facilitate secure, effective international assistance, and many relief efforts have been hampered as a result. [9]
To address this situation, the International Federation launched the International Disaster Response Law (IDRL) project in 2000. The IDRL project has collected and analyzed existing international legal instruments relevant to disaster relief. [10] Key deficiencies identified by IDRL research include regional disparities in the existence of treaties relevant to disaster relief; diversity in the content of treaties relating to disaster relief; "disparate and inconclusive" legal principles on disaster relief; and significant aspects of disaster relief not properly addressed. [11]
Efforts to use international law to facilitate disaster relief appear in treaties on air, maritime, and land transportation and on customs procedures. [12] Regional approaches can be found in disaster-specific agreements, such as the Council of Europe's Agreement on the Prevention of, Protection Against, and Organization of Relief in Major Natural and Technological Disasters (1987) (21 states parties) and the Inter-American Convention to Facilitate Disaster Assistance (1991)(2 states parties). The Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunications Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations (1998) (30 states parties), which entered into force on January 8, 2005, facilitates provision of one kind of disaster relief resource by creating procedures for telecommunications assistance in any disaster setting.
In response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, the IDRL project identified significant disaster relief problems. The IDRL coordinator argued that "[t]he tsunami operation has once again highlighted the complexities of getting relief across borders in the shortest time and with maximum efficiency. Humanitarian organisations are not only having to cope with damaged infrastructure, they are also dealing with 12 different governments and 12 different sets of customs regulations. Delays in getting aid to those who need it cost lives." [13]
The IDRL project does not expressly advocate the adoption of a global convention on disaster relief but, at present, focuses on identifying ways national and international law can be improved to facilitate better disaster relief. Given the multilateral nature of most serious natural disasters, development of international law on disaster relief may become necessary. The experience of the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami may stimulate such development.
Of SARS and Tsunamis: International Law and Comprehensive Collective Security
The international legal issues raised by the Indian Ocean tsunami echo concerns voiced in other contexts about the need to rethink concepts of "security" in the face of non-military threats to human well-being. Recently, the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change made the case for "comprehensive collective security," which the Panel defined as security not only from war but also from poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation. [14] Under this perspective, the revision of the International Health Regulations proposed by the World Health Organization and stimulated by the SARS outbreak in 2003 constitutes a potentially new kind of collective security agreement. [15]
The Secretary-General's High Level Panel said that environmental degradation has worsened the destructive potential of natural disasters in recent years. The Panel noted that "[m]ore than two billion people were affected by such disasters in the last decade, and in the same period the economic toll surpassed that of the previous four decades combined." [16] As SARS did in the case of infectious diseases, the tsunami tragedy perhaps raises the need to think about natural disasters through the lens of comprehensive collective security and to focus more attention on governance regimes that will more effectively protect, alert, and provide relief to populations threatened by natural disasters.
About the author:
David P. Fidler is Professor of Law and Harry T. Ice Faculty Fellow at Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington.
[1] Convention on the Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, Sept. 26, 1986, 1439 UNTS 275; and Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, Sept. 26, 1986, 1457 UNTS 133.
[2] The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in 1961.
[3] Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific: Master Plan (2nd ed., 1999), at 16.
[4] Id., at 4.
[5] See UNESCO, UNESCO Plans Global Tsunami Warning System for Mid-2007, Press Release, Jan. 13, 2005.
[6] Convention Establishing an International Relief Union, July 12, 1927, 135 LNTS 247.
[7] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disasters Report 2000 149 (2000) [hereinafter World Disasters Report 2000]. Technically, the functions of the International Relief Union were transferred to the UNESCO. See Patrick Myers, Succession Between International Organizations 36 (1993).
[8] Bradford Morse, Practice, Norms and Reform of International Humanitarian Rescue Operations, 157 Recueil des Cours 121, 189 (1977 (IV)).
[9] World Disasters Report 2000, supra note 7, at 145.
[10] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Disaster Response Laws, Principles and Practice: Reflections, Prospects and Challenges (2003).
[11] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IDRL Legal Research: Research into Existing IDRL Treaties, IDRL Fact Sheet No. 6, March 2003.
[12] World Disasters Report 2000, supra note 7, at 152.
[13] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Tsunami Operation Offers Reminder of Need for Disaster Reduction Measures, Press Release, Jan. 12, 2005.
[14] UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, Report--A More Secure World, Our Shared Responsibility 1-2 (2004) [hereinafter A More Secure World].
[15] The second intergovernmental negotiating session on the revision of the International Health Regulations is scheduled to take place from February 21-25, 2005, in Geneva. The first negotiating session took place in November 2004.
[16] A More Secure World, supra note 14, at 26.
From January 18-22, the United Nations sponsored the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (World Conference) in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.1 Although the UN had scheduled this conference before the Indian Ocean tsunamis occurred at the end of December 2004, this disaster factored significantly into the World Conference's deliberations.
The World Conference issued a Common Statement on the Indian Ocean Disaster, which stressed, among other things, (1) the importance of improved regional cooperation and coordination mechanisms for disaster reduction and disaster relief; and (2) the need to establish tsunami early warning systems in the Indian Ocean region.2 With respect to an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, the World Conference noted the efforts being made by ASEAN and Thailand to promote a regional tsunami warning system in the aftermath of the tsunami tragedy.3 The World Conference also welcomed the offer made by Germany to host a United Nations conference on early warning systems for disasters in early 2006.4
The World Conference adopted the Hyogo Declaration5 and the Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015.6 The Declaration and Framework for Action frame disaster reduction strategies as critical components for sustainable development on a global basis. The Framework of Action specifically identifies the need to use international law in the implementation of its strategic goals and action priorities, arguing that "an enabling environment is vital to stimulate and contribute to developing the knowledge, capacities and motivation needed to build disaster resilient nations and communities. . . . In the coming years, consideration should be given to ensuring the implementation and strengthening of relevant international legal instruments related to disaster risk reduction."7
1 For information about this conference, see World Conference on Disaster Reduction, 18-22 January 2005, Kobe, Hyogo, Japan,
2 World Conference on Disaster Reduction, Common Statement of the Special Session on the Indian Ocean Disaster: Risk Reduction for a Safer Future, A/CONF.206/L.6/Rev.1, Jan. 20, 2005.
3Id., preamble (ASEAN Special Leaders' Meeting on January 6, 2005) and ¶11 (Thailand's proposed convening of a ministerial meeting on January 28-29, 2005 in Phuket, Thailand to discuss regional cooperation on tsunami early warning arrangements).
4Id., ¶12.
5 World Conference on Disaster Reduction, Hyogo Declaration, A/CONF.206/L.3/Rev.1, Jan. 22, 2005.
6 World Conference on Disaster Reduction, Hyogo Framework of Action, 2005-2015, A/CONF.206/L.2/Rev.1, Jan. 22, 2005.
7Id., ¶22.