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U.S. Human Rights Network Calls for Authorities to Meet Legal, Moral Obligations to ’Internally Displaced Persons’ in Wake of Katrina


ATLANTA, Sept. 13 -- Continued relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been marked by as much official confusion and disarray as was evident in the immediate response. Competing interests combined with poor planning and a disjointed response from public and private agencies have underscored conflicting views about priorities, funding and other crucial details. A clear vision of what should happen next, however, can be readily gained by applying a human rights framework to the debate. Such a framework already exists: the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

The principles identify the internationally recognized rights and guarantees of “internally displaced persons -- people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and communities due to a number of factors, including natural disaster -- and distinguish them from ”refugees“ or ”evacuees.“ ”This is not a mere question of semantics,“ says Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, ”but an essential definition that establishes the obligations of government to protect and defend the rights of the Gulf Coast residents who have been dispersed across the country"

The U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 170 human rights organizations across the country, is strongly urging that federal, state and local authorities apply the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to all future Katrina-related discussions and actions. It is important to note that the United States has consistently upheld the U.N. principles 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,” Baraka says, “they certainly apply here.”

One of the most contentious issues currently emerging is the fate of the large numbers of people, largely poor and African American who may want to return to their homes and communities yet may not have the resources to do so. But as the U.N. principles 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.” 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,” says Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, a USHRN member, “and we must ensure that they are not allowed to feed.”

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, and their plight must not be compounded by letting them fend for themselves once the dust has settled. This will be especially important to remember after Katrina has faded from the media spotlight. “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,” Hill says.

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 ought to include a role for anyone with expertise in displacement issues, including the U.N. High Commission on Refugees and other international agencies. Regardless of the mechanism, alternatives to dumping the entire recovery burden on FEMA or other ill-equipped agency must be explored. “Without a coordinated plan that specifically addresses critical long-term issues,” Baraka says, “the likelihood will only increase in coming months that the most powerless victims of Katrina will be left with nothing.”

Missing from the press conferences and official statements to date 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,” says Hill, “but an absolute necessity.”

For more information on the U.S. Human Rights Network, contact executive director Ajamu Baraka at 404-588-9761.


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