The 2006 UN Guidelines on human rights and natural disasters emphasized the priority of freedom of religion or belief even in extreme situations.

by Stefania Cerruti*

*Introduction to the webinar “Human Rights, FoRB, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 10, 2023, United Nations Human Rights Day.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 12th, 2023.

United Nations-supervised distribution of food to disaster victims in Africa. Source: United Nations.
United Nations-supervised distribution of food to disaster victims in Africa. Source: United Nations.

Today’s webinar celebrates one of the most important United Nations days of observance, Human Rights Day. 

My specialized field is the study and prevention of disasters, a matter that is very much related to human rights. In the years 2004 and 2005, an anomalous concentration of tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes hit different parts of the world, particularly in the Americas and Asia. Analyses of the relief efforts by the United Nations led to the alarming conclusion that there was a “human rights gap in disaster relief.” The United Nations noted that “not only national authorities are often unaware of the relevance of human rights norms in the context of natural disasters. International agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also at a loss as to how to incorporate a human rights-based approach into emergency relief and response, even though many of the laws and codes of conduct applicable in situations of natural disaster include such guarantees.”

In June 2006, the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) adopted the “Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters.” These Guidelines, the Committee stated, were “needed because already existing guidelines on humanitarian action in emergencies, as well as standards for protecting human rights in armed conflict, did not deal specifically with human rights concerns emanating from natural disasters.”

Cover of the 2006 Guidelines published in 2008 with the corresponding Field Manual.
Cover of the 2006 Guidelines published in 2008 with the corresponding Field Manual.

Victims of natural disasters, according to the Guidelines, are entitled to four categories of rights: (A) rights related to life, physical security and integrity; (B) rights related to the basic necessities of life; (C) other economic, social and cultural rights; and (D) other civil and political rights. Special attention, the Guidelines emphasized, should be paid to the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities victims of natural disasters.

What normally happens in the case of a natural disaster is that most victims are no longer able to live in their homes, which have been destroyed, and sometimes even in their villages, cities, or countries. They should move elsewhere. During this forced misplacements they can be mistreated, robbed, and physically or sexually abused. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the first two categories of human rights mentioned by the Guidelines, i.e., the right to life and security and the right to the basic necessity of life, should be immediately guaranteed to them. However, once they are relocated and while they wait for the possibility to return back to where they lived before the disaster, the third and fourth categories of the Guidelines should also apply, i.e.  economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. The victims of disasters should be able to send their children to school and maintain their cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious identity. 

I am impressed by the fact that the 2006 Guidelines mention freedom of religion or belief more than thirty times. These mentions include references to the rights of the displaced victims of natural disasters to build places of worship, continue to respect their religion-based dietary prescriptions, and bury their dead according to their religious customs. Indeed, the Guidelines call for taking religion-based human rights into account since the first stages of the relief efforts. “Freedom of thought, religion and belief may be affected in disaster situations if relief efforts are undertaken without sufficient respect for the religious traditions of affected communities,” the document says.

On Human Rights Day, the lesson of this document is that the right to freedom of religion or belief comes immediately after the rights to life and integrity, and should be protected even in the case of disasters or other extreme situations.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

It seems to me that this United Nations document contrasts with what happened to Tai Ji Men in Taiwan. Their human rights, including rights to property and rights to freedom of religion or belief, were regarded as less important than saving the face of certain bureaucrats who had unjustly prosecuted and imposed tax bills on Tai Ji Men and had created an unnecessary human-made disaster. If, as the 2006 Guidelines proclaim, the frantic efforts to save victims of natural disasters are no excuse for violating human rights and lose sight of freedom of religion or belief, it should be even more true that no political or administrative context or need may excuse the injustice suffered by Tai Ji Men.

We are here today to proclaim that human rights and religious and spiritual freedom are universal and there are no situations or exceptions that may excuse their violation. We are also here to try to remedy a great human-made disaster, the persecution and tax harassment of Tai Ji Men.