In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the debate
is already raging on how to deal with those displaced by the disaster
and whether to rebuild New Orleans and other coastal communities.
Competing interests combined with poor planning and a disjointed
response from public and private agencies have created confusion
about priorities, funding and other crucial details. It is imperative
that a human rights and humanitarian law framework be applied
to these discussions and form the basis for all future action.
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal
Displacement provide just such a framework. The principles identify
the internationally recognized rights and guarantees of people
who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and communities
due to a number of factors, including natural disaster. According
to this set of principles, those who have been displaced from
their homes but not crossed international borders are classified
as “internally displaced persons,” not “refugees” or “evacuees.”
This is not a mere question of semantics, but an essential
definition that establishes the obligations that government has
to protect and defend the rights of the Gulf Coast residents who
have been dispersed across the country.
The extent to which various aspects of the recovery
should be funded will be a topic of much debate among policymakers,
especially given the federal deficit and competing economic needs.
But the rights of the displaced must be viewed as a separate and
overriding issue. Receiving protection and humanitarian assistance
from government authorities is not an act of benevolence, but
rather is obligatory for displaced people – for the duration of
their displacement. This will be especially important to remember
after media coverage of Katrina has faded, and we must not compound
the plight of the displaced by letting them fend for themselves
once the dust has settled. If we accept that it will take years
to rebuild New Orleans, we must also accept that it will take
no less time to rebuild the lives of the displaced from New Orleans
and throughout the Gulf Coast.
One of the most contentious issues that will emerge
in the near future is the fate of the large numbers of people,
largely poor and African American who may want to return to their
homes and communities but may not have the resources to do so.
But as the U.N. guidelines clearly state, “Authorities have the
duty and responsibility to assist returned and/or resettled internally
displaced persons to recover, to the extent possible, their property
and possessions which they left behind or were dispossessed of
upon their displacement.” We know that there are powerful
forces in New Orleans and elsewhere on the coast who would prefer
that the poor of those communities not be allowed to return. Low-
and middle-income property owners will have particular difficulty
meeting their financial obligations and will require protection
from creditors; speculators are already targeting the most vulnerable
and desperate property owners, offering cash for their holdings
at pennies on the dollar. The sharks are circling, and we must
ensure that they are not allowed to feed.
In fact, the problems the displaced will face in
the future may well dwarf what they’ve already been through. Assessing
and then meeting the individual needs of several hundred thousand
people scattered in dozens of states will be a difficult and time-consuming
task, the magnitude of which argues strongly for a coordinated
response that must begin now. This might well include a role for
the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which has considerable experience
with displacement issues, and other international agencies. Regardless
of the mechanism, alternatives to dumping the entire recovery
burden on FEMA or other already-overextended agency must be explored.
Without a coordinated plan that specifically addresses critical
long-term issues, the likelihood will only increase in coming
months that the most powerless victims of Katrina will be left
The disproportionate hardships shouldered by poor,
mostly minority residents of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina
have been well-documented and acknowledged by most observers.
It is not enough, however, to address this reality merely by issuing
debit cards, formulating more equitable evacuation plans or otherwise
better preparing for future disasters. Rather, as the U.N. principles
clearly state, continued relief efforts must be viewed in the
context of providing meaningful opportunities for the displaced
and their families in the months and years to come. Stories of
evacuees airlifted to destinations far from their families and
friends, sometimes against their will, reinforce the importance
of viewing the emergency measures as a temporary, not a permanent,
solution. The idea that evacuees will remain where they’ve been
dropped assumes that they have no other options; providing such
options is an essential component of the government’s obligation
according to the U.N. principles.
Missing from the press conferences and official
statements has been any commitment to another of the U.N. principles:
that the victims of Hurricane Katrina have the ability to decide
for themselves how to reconstruct their lives. As the principles
state unequivocally, the displaced have an inalienable right to
participate in decisions about their future, and any recovery
plan in Katrina’s aftermath must therefore include substantive
input by those who have the most at stake. This is not a courtesy
that can be discarded if it becomes inconvenient, but an absolute
It is important to note that the United States has
consistently upheld the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement
when similar circumstances have arisen in other countries. If
the fundamental rights of displaced people apply in countries
far less able to cope with such disasters as Hurricane Katrina,
they certainly apply here.
Ajamu Baraka is Director of the U.S. Human Rights
Network, a coalition of more than 170 organizations working on
the full spectrum of human rights issues. Formed to promote U.S.
adherence to universal human rights standards by building links
between organizations as well as individuals across the nation,
the Network strives towards building a human rights culture that
puts those directly affected by human rights violations in a central
leadership role. The Network also works to connect the U.S. human
rights movement with the broader U.S. social justice movement
and human rights movements around the world. He can be reached
at [email protected].