Natural Disasters and Human Rights

I spent last week on the Cape. You’re supposed to let the world slip away when you are on vacation, but my thoughts kept drifting to the size and scope of the flooding in Pakistan, the inadequacy of the world’s response and the relationship of that failure to the global scale of human rights violations. Why lump a seemingly disparate concept, human rights, together with massive flooding?

First, the Pakistani flooding, affecting tens of millions, is the latest of several astoundingly enormous calamities such as the Indonesian tsunami and the Haitian earthquake that the world has been experiencing with increasing frequency and impact in the 21st century. I wrote the following here just after the Haitian catastrophe: “What does the Haitian earthquake teach us about the world’s government’s ability to cope with two hundred million, as opposed to two hundred thousand dead? A billion, instead of a million, homeless? It is clear that we can’t handle it.”

The interaction of human population density, energy consumption and climate change means more and bigger disasters await us. It is clear that a coordinated global response is required, not only to these disasters, but also to the underlying causes that exacerbate them. But the world’s most powerful governments are focused on maximizing their economic, military and political power both within and beyond their borders. They are unwilling to make an all-out commitment of resources to disarmament, containing energy use or developing worldwide rescue plans.

In other words, what the world needs in order to cope with looming mega-disasters is a fundamental reordering of priorities, but the vast majority of the world’s governments, even those who pay lip service to the need for change, oppose such drastic transformations. We need supra-state action, that is, actions in which governments submit to an authority that represents the interests of the entire world in order to come to grips with the challenges we face.

The concept of human rights, particularly as articulated starting in the 1970’s, posits that all human beings have certain basic rights that supersede state authority, and that world governing bodies have the right to try and punish even leaders of states that violate these rights. Of course, enforcement of these principles is feeble at best. In fact, the world’s governments, rather than terrorists, fundamentalists or criminals, are by far the globe’s biggest human rights violators.

Nevertheless, the consistent worldwide application of universal standards of human rights is the underpinning necessary for any global re-prioritization of national interests. This is so because the development of supra-national human rights will tend to elevate such rights over narrow national interests. This will tend to tip the scales toward civil liberties and away from national security. Such a reversal, in turn, could place the control of energy consumption ahead of military expansion, (the US military is the world’s single biggest consumer of energy), as an international priority.

Of course, saying this is a lot easier than making it happen. It is a very long journey, but it helps to know your destination. And that’s what I thought about on my summer vacation.

To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together, subscribe now.


I got some odd comfort from reading your blog. I too spent my summer vacation picturing the planet ablaze and flooding with the faces of suffering people everywhere imprinted on my mind. Now to translate that into action where we can make a difference. Pat L.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.