Governments usually try to help their people if for no other reason than that they have a sovereign responsibility to do so. Even if their attempts are feeble or full of mistakes, a government recognizing that it is unable to fulfil its duties shows willing.
But what I’m worried about is when a government is either unable or unwilling to support its people. Beyond any sovereign responsibility to help your people it is our duty to help other humans. In this monograph I explain that we have a duty or responsibility to help other humans because humans have (moral) human rights; they matter.
Specifically, I focus on the human right to welfare. When we consider any human right to welfare in the aftermath of a natural hazard, I’m talking about the minimum, basic provision necessary for human survival: objective goods that people need to live a life with a high level of welfare including a life sustaining amount of food, water, shelter and security. Humans cannot pursue their concept of a good life if they don’t have certain basic elements necessary for survival.
If we can agree that humans have a right to life-saving, life-sustaining goods, then we should be able to likewise agree that there must be a duty holder. When a state, the primary duty holder, has not acted on their duties to save or sustain life, the duty doesn’t just disappear. Instead, we, other humans, are still duty holders, and have a moral obligation to act.
There are only rare occasions when governments can’t or don’t act on behalf of their people in the aftermath of a natural hazard. The most contentious case of this was in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008. Mass homelessness, destroyed buildings, and thousands killed. Myanmar did not request any international assistance in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Worryingly, though, the Government also restricted the movement of foreign aid workers already in-country. One could argue that aid workers were being prevented from doing their jobs. Foreign aid was also not allowed into the country. I would suggest that Myanmar, at this point, was unwilling to do what was necessary for its people.
Let’s quickly consider when a country can’t provide life-saving assistance to its people. For example, imagine that every person in the Myanmar Government was killed by the cyclone (you can see a bit of the morbid-ness critics were talking about). The international community is legally prevented from providing assistance to the people of Myanmar without a specific request/consent from the Government of Myanmar. But they can’t give that consent if they are no longer alive. There is no mechanism in international law for the international community to act in this kind of scenario. This is ethically problematic as the international community has second-order duties to provide for the welfare of those affected.
When assistance was not accepted or requested, and diplomacy was not budging the Myanmar government, the international community started having political discussions amongst themselves. Some argued that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine should be triggered and with that military force should be used to ‘protect’ those being prevented from being saved.
Hence, the ethical issue: there is no formal mechanism for when a government is unable or unwilling to help its people in the aftermath of a natural hazard. This is despite the international community having a moral obligation to provide the goods associated with basic survival for those humans affected. To that end, in the monograph I suggest a possible way of developing international policy based on Just War criteria which account for our ethical requirements whilst addressing the possible legal and political hurdles that stand in the way of saving lives.
So, yes, there is a lot of death and destruction in my research. But don’t mistake the morbid-ness of what I research for anything other than hope. I work to make ethical justifications for international community action in ways that mean that those in life threatening situations in the aftermath of a natural hazard are properly valued as being worthy of being saved. The type of emergency should never undermine our duties to other humans.