In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the media struggled over what to call the storm's survivors. Early news reports often referred to fleeing residents as "refugees," but civil rights leaders objected to that label. They argued that it put blacks -- who constituted the majority of New Orleans' displaced -- at risk of being deprived of their rights as U.S. citizens. Furthermore, international law defines "refugees" as people who cross international borders while fleeing conflict in their home country, which was not the situation after Katrina.
There's a more appropriate term to describe the storm's victims: internally displaced persons (IDPs). The treatment of IDPs is governed by the United Nations' Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a set of 30 tenets that draws on existing international law to set forth guaranteed human rights protections for those displaced in their home countries by events including natural disasters.
The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement have been repeatedly affirmed by U.N. member nations, including the United States. Indeed, the Bush administration has called for (pdf) "wider international recognition of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a useful framework for dealing with internal displacement."
Now a group advocating for the human rights of hurricane survivors is calling on U.S. leaders to apply the Guiding Principles to the victims of the 2005 storms. The International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has asked the Congressional Black Caucus to introduce federal legislation recognizing Katrina and Rita survivors' status as IDPs under human rights law and to provide appropriate restitution for their losses:
We encourage the CBC to develop and introduce a bill that recognizes this status and provides the resources needed to ensure that the rights it guarantees are fully enacted and enforced. Precedent for such a bill is provided by House Resolution 426 recognizing the year 2007 as "the Year of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Columbia". Various aspects of HR 4197 also provide it.
Consonant with this recognition, the findings of the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita call for a Congressional Bill that provides restitution for IDP's for the losses they incurred as a direct result of the governments failure to provide adequate protections through its management of the regions wetlands and water management systems, particularly the Levee system of New Orleans, and the human rights abuses they suffered as a direct result of their forced evacuation and dispersal at the hands of the Federal government and its agents.
Both of these Bills are necessary in order to repair, restore, and rebuild the lives of those displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The International Tribunal would like to work with the CBC in drafting this critical legislation.
To sign the Tribunal's petition calling on President Bush to recognize storm survivors as IDPs, click here. For more information on efforts to recognize and protect storm survivors' human rights, click here and here.