Report from the Disasters and International Law in the Asia-Pacific workshop


The Asia-Pacific region is the most disaster-prone region in the world and has in recent years witnessed the devastating human and economic impacts of catastrophic disasters, including the Nepal earthquake in 2015, Cyclone Pam also in 2015 and super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) which struck the Philippines in 2013. In light of the increased frequency and severity of disasters occurring as a result of climate change, there is a clear need for better coordination and regional co-operation in emergency response, preparedness and prevention, particularly in a region as diverse as the Asia-Pacific with countries at varying stages of development and varying institutional and economic strength. The international community has expressed its commitment to disaster risk reduction with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, adopted by UN Member States on 18 March 2015, which seeks to build resilience, reduce vulnerability and strengthen global partnerships in disaster response. International disaster law, with its patchwork of global, regional and bilateral treaties and guidelines, has a key role to play; however, an interdisciplinary approach is essential in responding to disaster situations. Knowledge sharing and capacity-building requires collaboration between government, international organisations, civil society and academia.

This report details the proceedings and outcomes of an expert workshop on Disasters and International Law in the Asia-Pacific held at the University of New South Wales on 24 July 2015. The workshop aimed to bring together practitioners, including those working in government, NGOs and international organisations, as well as academics and researchers, to discuss current issues relating to disasters and international law in the Asia-Pacific region. The workshop also aimed to develop a network for cooperation and discussion concerning international law and disasters in the Asia-Pacific region.

The workshop provided a forum for discussion on how effectively to disseminate information about best practice within the region and beyond. The four panel sessions considered: the practical operation of disaster laws and strategies for increasing community engagement in decision-making processes; the international legal framework for the delivery of disaster relief; the effectiveness of transnational networks and informal relationships in responding to disasters; and the interaction between international disaster law and international human rights law, particularly in the way disasters disproportionately affect women and persons with disabilities. Case studies of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, the Nepal earthquake and super-typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines highlighted areas of strength within disaster law and practice, and identified areas for development in the Asia-Pacific region.

Keynote addresses were given by Ms Fine Tu’itupou-Arnold, Secretary-General of the Cook Islands Red Cross, and Dr Jesus ‘Gary’ Domingo, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Philippines. Ms Tu’itupou-Arnold highlighted the challenges faced by small Pacific Island States that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of disasters and often lack the human and financial resources to implement disaster law and strategy. Ms Tu’itupou-Arnold considered the potential of community groups to respond to disasters and advocated for a grassroots approach to disaster management that builds local capacity and engages communities in decision-making processes. Dr Domingo discussed the role of foreign ministries in disaster response and management and the diplomatic negotiation required to manage international assistance and personnel while maintaining positive relationships with deploying States and agencies. Dr Domingo emphasised the importance of a paradigm shift towards preparedness and mitigation, which includes strengthening the capacity and resources of local governments prior to the advent of a disaster.

The workshop identified several challenges for practitioners and governments in implementing effective disaster risk reduction and management strategies in the Asia-Pacific. Challenges include: the discord between international frameworks and national plans; the provision of unsolicited and unnecessary foreign assistance; resource and capacity constraints, particularly in remote communities; the sidelining of local governments by foreign agencies in disaster situations; negotiating ad hoc legal arrangements for the deployment of disaster relief personnel to avoid breaching international law and afford appropriate privileges and immunities to those personnel; ensuring that international disaster law addresses the particular vulnerabilities of women, persons with disabilities and the elderly; and building meaningful and representative local participation in decision-making processes.

Participants in the workshop also highlighted a range of opportunities, including: the potential for international disaster law to access funds from the climate change regime; building informal and transnational networks to respond more effectively to disasters; the use of international human rights law to provide standards of scrutiny and facilitate humanitarian assistance; the potential for further engagement and capacity-building for local communities, with the aid of guides and best practice guidelines; and reviewing and consolidating the network of regional agencies in order to streamline international assistance and allow for more coordinated disaster response at the local, national and regional levels. 

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