In 2006, in response to a lack of focus on human rights protections following natural disasters, the UN Human Rights Council issued the Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights of internally displaced persons
]. The document recognized the importance of human rights considerations in the context of natural disasters and the humanitarian response:
Human rights are the legal underpinning of all humanitarian work pertaining to natural disasters. There is no other legal framework to guide such activities, especially in areas where there is no armed conflict. If humanitarian assistance is not based on a human rights framework, it risks having too narrow a focus and cannot integrate all the basic needs of the victims into a holistic planning process. There is also the risk that factors important for recovery and reconstruction later on will be overlooked. Further, neglecting the human rights of those affected by natural disasters effectively means no account will be taken of the fact that such people do not live in a legal vacuum. They live in countries with laws, rules and institutions that should protect their rights.
The report and its addendum, the Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, also underscored that protection of human rights and provision of assistance to the populations are the obligation of the government of the affected country. Additionally, the inclusion and consultation with individuals from the affected community during the decision-making process and implementation of relief activities are also fundamental principles set forth in this document. The Operational Guidelines further noted the essential role of community members in ensuring "effective, equitable, and sustainable" relief and recovery programs [46, 47]. The important role of local communities in disaster responses was also recognized by ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, that called for the promotion of "public participation in programmes related to disaster risk reduction and emergency responses in order to promote community resilience to disasters" and "partnership with relevant stakeholders, including local communities, non-governmental organisations and private enterprises, and strengthen cooperation with United Nationals and relevant international organisations". In the case of Burma, as reported here, community members were among the first and most effective responders during the crisis.
Unfortunately, as is reported here, there is consensus that donor aid has been and continues to be inadequate for the needs of the affected populations [36, 49, 50]. Many needs assessments and reports done in partnership with the Burmese government, including reports focused on the social impacts of the storm, have generally not reported on human rights issues, despite the central role that this has been recognized to play[48, 51]. The assessment and reporting of human rights concerns is further limited by censorship, and the SPDC tightly controls independent collection and dissemination of information, including reporting on the needs of communities[52, 53]. In this context, private and independent relief organizations such as EAT are in unique positions to conduct rights investigations and play an essential role to help ensure "effective, equitable, and sustainable" relief and recovery programs. As members of the communities, they have physical access to the most challenging, heavily-affected areas, especially those where foreign aid access is restricted by the authorities. And, as members of storm-affected communities, they aroused less suspicion while traveling, were trusted by the survivors and volunteer relief workers, and were instrumental in gauging the priorities and needs of the local people. Using participatory methods and operating without the knowledge and consent of the Burmese junta or its affiliated institutions, they were thus well-positioned to serve as independent, community-level monitors of human rights.
These assessments reveal that ongoing human rights abuses have occurred in cyclone-affected areas in the context of relief and reconstruction efforts. These included official interference in relief efforts, harassment and intimidation of private relief workers, misappropriation and confiscation of aid, controls on information, confiscation of land from survivors, and forced labor. Our findings show that the difference of having unhindered access to affected communities and ensuring the anonymity and confidentiality of those willing to testify uncovers realities on the ground that stand in contrast to evaluations conducted in partnership with the ruling junta[27, 48, 51, 54, 55].
This assessment was subject to several limitations. Due to security and logistical concerns, it was not possible to conduct a quantitative population-based assessment in tandem with the qualitative human rights investigation. As a result, estimations of the prevalence of human rights abuses were not possible. In addition, the disclosure of identifiers, such as specific village names where the data were collected, was also impossible due to security considerations. To date, at least 21 individuals involved in private cyclone-related activities have been arrested, none associated with this assessment, and some have been sentenced to long prison terms, underscoring the reality of these security concerns in Burma. At least eight additional community activists and cyclone relief volunteers were sentenced to long prison terms in January 2010. Despite such limitations, the use of in-depth interviews, however, offer several strengths to the investigation. Foremost, interviews allow for an understating of the nuanced experiences among survivors and relief workers. The use of qualitative methods also allowed for refinement, addition of questions, and adjustment of the interview guide when new themes emerged over time. Additionally, the ability of the research team to use probes to collect further details of experiences allowed for the verification of veracity and internal consistency, as well as the separation of personal experience from hearsay. An additional limitation was the selected nature of the interviewers and interviewees, and the potential biases inherent in non-random sampling of participants. While population-based approaches would arguably have generated more generalizable findings, this was not feasible for logistical and security reasons; however, non-random approaches, such as used in this investigation, should not undermine the veracity of any individual experience of abuse.
The limitations of this investigation should not detract from the reality that independent community voices in cyclone relief and reconstruction activities should be encouraged. This is particularly important in countries such as Burma, one of the most corrupt governments in the world, and where widespread, systematic human rights abuses of civilians has been widely documented, including violations of several UN Conventions to which Burma is signatory, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the International Labour Organisation Convention 29 on Forced Labour[17, 57–59]. And, even before Cyclone Nargis, strict limitations on international humanitarian assistance, particularly information gathering and travel for international staff, were a reality for aid organizations[60, 61]. Community-led monitoring of human rights violations are an important part of assessing responses to complex humanitarian emergencies, particularly where states are unwilling to or have failed to do so.