Ecuador Earthquake: What lawyers can do
On Saturday 16 of April an earthquake struck Ecuador. At 7.8 on the Richter scale, it levelled various towns of the province of Manabí, in particular Pedernales, Manta and Portoviejo. At current estimates, it has killed more than 500 persons. Many of them died a slow death, after days of being trapped in the rubble. Thousands are injured, and many are homeless and dispossessed. The whole extent of the damage can still not be reliably calculated.
The country reacted to the damage in various ways. Firefighters have saved more than 100 persons from the rubble. Today, after 100 hours have passed since the earthquake people are still being found alive under the debris. Civil society from nearby cities such as Guayaquil and Quito have donated money, milk, tuna cans, sleeping bags and diapers, to care for survivors. Many citizens of these towns have in fact driven to Manabí to help distributing goods and comforting the survivors.
Amidst this tragedy it is easy to feel useless. Lawyers are not doctors, nurses or rescue personnel. In the short term, what we can do is help financially those who are best positioned to help. At the end of this blog post you will find links where you can contribute to help mitigate the damage.
Yet after contributing financially to address the plight of the victims, there is still a lot to be done. There are many questions that lawyers need to ask: was the state adequately prepared for the earthquake? Where rescue personnel, heartbeat trackers and trained dogs ready on demand to search for people under the rubble? Where building codes strict enough so that only buildings reasonably resistant to earthquakes could be built?
All these questions raise issues of international responsibility under human rights law. Human rights are currently understood as practical protection against standard threats to the various values and interests that undergird human rights (life, food, housing, bodily integrity). Given its potential for widespread harm, for a country on the Ring of Fire, an earthquake is certainly a standard threat.
This questioning need not be made in a moralistic tone, pointing the finger, as it were. It is easy to ignore the incidence of natural disasters, hoping that they will never occur, and many buildings were made long before the current government took power. But still, these questions need to be asked. It is very clear, that it in this day age, human and social factors are determinant to how much damage an earthquake actually causes.
Finding international responsibility is not pointing the finger. It is trying to create accountability and improve governmental structures. In fact, the international community can also learn from Ecuador. In the aftermath of the Earthquake the government has decided to impose a special tax on those who have a patrimony of more than one million American dollars. Whatever one’s opinion on taxes might be, it is evident that in a disaster of this magnitude, the strong must do as much as they can to be bear the weight of this blow. The international community should not shy away from demanding such measures as mandatory. Nevertheless, duties of taxation are terra incognita for international human rights law.
As lawyers we must not have short term memoires. Our professional contribution to preventing loss of life and suffering in disaster´s such as this can only take place long after the dust has settled. But as citizens of the global community, as brothers and sisters of the big human family, we can act now.
Here you can find some links were you can help contribute to the reconstruction of affected zones.