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In What Ways Can Natural Disasters Be Understood as State Crimes?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Geography
Wordcount: 4011 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Oxford dictionary (2010) provides a definition of a natural disaster as ‘an unplanned event that happens suddenly, such as an accident that causes great damage or loss of life’. Hodgkinson and Stewart (1991) highlighted that disasters have factors of threat, urgency and uncertainty which inevitably affects the victims and responding organisations. In addition, a disaster is recognised as a hazard which is also a threatening event that can lead to loss of life or damage to property or environment, stating that it is a product of hazard and vulnerability implying that a hazard comes before a disaster (Shook, 2002). According to Green and Ward (2004) a natural disaster can consist of: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, cyclones and hurricanes. Natural disasters are ignored in criminology as it would not be considered as a state crime, but it is now seen that the state can be culpable of being accountable if they fail to act (International State Crime Initiative, 2014). The purpose of this essay is to look at ways a natural disaster can be understood as a state crime.

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There are different types of disasters: Natural disaster and manmade disaster. Manmade disasters are hazards that are a result of human intervention. Whereas, natural disasters are ‘the interference between an extreme physical event and a vulnerable human population’ as ‘without a vulnerable population, there can be no disaster’ (Susman et al. 1983:264). Natural disasters can now be a state crime when there are violations of human rights and those violations result from a form of organisational deviance (Green and Ward, 2000). A state’s omission, which is a failure to act or effectively respond is also one way in which a state can responsible for a natural disaster (Green and Ward, 2000). Some basic human rights that are the needs of citizens are: life, shelter, food and sanitation. If those basic needs are affected by the natural disaster and the state do nothing to intervene or help the situation then the state are breaching their own policies and laws (Green and Ward, 2000). Vulnerability is a key issue when natural disaster happen as they can cause poverty, corruption and Authoritarianism (Goodhand, 2003).  Developing countries such as, Haiti are already considered vulnerable and it is not coincidental for the poorer countries to live in hazardous environments which can hinder the way government prioritise spending on other obligations (Deudney, 1991). One of the key issues within developing countries is the fact that they do not have the sufficient funding to effectively protect them from natural disasters. (Hallegatte et al. 2017). For example, the case of Guatemalan earthquake in 1976 whereby it was found that data given on selected diseases and medical supplies showed that they had very limited resources despite responding quickly showing how if they had the funding, they could have more protection, prevented deaths and outbreaks of diseases as a result of the disaster, which can be seen in more developed countries (Spencer et al. 1977).

Another vulnerability is corruption, which can be seen when the state has political or administrative corruption that violates human rights (Green and Ward, 2004). Moreover, one way in which corruption becomes prevalent is when the state can foresee a natural disaster but fail to take the appropriate safety measures in order to protect their citizens. For example, the 1999 Turkish earthquake aftermath showed how the government knew that buildings in the area were made of insufficient materials and were aware that if a natural event was to happen it would be foreseeable that people within the building would be severely vulnerable. However, humanitarian organisations such as, Amnesty International, United Nations and the International Federation of the Red-cross all respond to help poorer communities and other vulnerable members of society when a disaster occurs. They implement preventive measures to make buildings ‘quake proof’ considering more resilient reconstructions of buildings too (The Guardian, 2015). The third vulnerability is authoritarianism in which a strong correlation exists between an authoritarian natured state and the degree of vulnerability of the victims of a disaster (Pelling, 2003). This can be seen in the case of the 1958-61 Chinese famine, where 5% of the country’s original population was lost. China was going through revolutionary changes within its government, which led to the speeding up of the economy – forcing the population to work labour despite the country being constrained and ‘backward in technology’. This therefore impacted on its own population by focusing more on the economy of the government over citizens showing how states can also inflict vulnerability onto its own citizens for its own agenda (Kung and Lin, 2003). Governments themselves have civil and political rights commitments and deliver strategies of prevention measures, mitigation and relief (Ferris, 2010). Furthermore, humanitarian organisations intervened in the case of the Nepal’s earthquake in 2015, which demonstrated that there has been ‘mass violations of human rights’ by the Nepalese government’s inaction (The guardian, 2015). In addition, they provided a Human Rights-Based approach ensuring that the most vulnerable people are assisted first, and this approach can be applied to how critical it is for responses (United Nations, 2016). However, Blaikie et al. (2004) stated that it is clear to see that natural disasters that happen can sometimes be just a natural cause as it was an act of nature. However, Hurricane Katrina (2005) for instance, devasted much of New Orleans in the United States. It was the most severe loss of life and property damage in Louisiana, as the flood protection failed in fifty-three different places and is referred to as an omission of the state (Kron, 2015). Also, New Orleans were criminalised against after pictures were released with discriminatory captions – it revealed the inextricable link between race, class, gender and age within American society (Brock, 2008). There was differential treatment of black and white people in New Orleans by the media, breaching Article 14: discrimination, Article 2: right for life and article 3: inhumane treatment violating human rights – making them arguably liable for the vulnerability of the victims (Brock, 2008).


The media is an example of how there is a link between disasters and crime as they frequently cover natural disasters as ‘agents of social disorder and criminal deviance’ (Zahran et al. 2009:27). Many studies displayed an increase in criminal activity after the disaster, drawing upon two theories of crime: Routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson, 1979) and Shaw and McKay (1942) social disorganisation theory. The routine theory speculates if three key elements: availability of suitable targets, the absence of capable guardians and the presence of motivated offenders are met, then crime will occur (Cohen and Felson, 1979). Whereas Shaw and McKay (1942) state that the social theory highlights that communities who are characterised such as, low-socioeconomic status do not have the capacity to control crime from happening. Thus, Shaw and McKay (1942) state that natural disasters are said to aggravate social conditions that cause social disorganisation and crime, hindering the government to respond. The social impact of natural disasters can have severe negative, continuing consequences which inevitably impact the economic state of the population (Benson and Clay, 2004). From analysed data on health-related costs, it is highlighted that natural disasters can in fact increase chronic disease and events such as, floods, cyclones, bushfires and earthquakes (VCOSS, 2016). Moreover, this can be seen in the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire’s aftermath which showed how many mental health organisations came forward to reveal the nature of the extent to what impact it can have. Despite this happening there was no additional funding for organisations to deal with this issue – showing how some governments will not help their own citizens from further vulnerability (Clement et al. 2016). However, one recommendation would be that governments, businesses and communities need to invest further in showing pre and post-disaster funding to aid the long-term nature of social impacts (Bidwell and Dell, 2011). Furthermore, the hierarchical linear modelling, specifies ‘higher crime rates are associated with larger disaster magnitudes’, debatably states that are common to have natural disasters are more likely to see their states be accountable (Prelog, 2016). Also, climate change may be a way in which states can be liable for allowing it to happen as it is a man-made interaction that contributed to the level of global warming, which shows how it can be argued that states are equally accountable for this (Agnew, 2011).


According to Henry (1998), when a state fails to protect, preserve and reduce disaster risks they are at fault – it may not have happened directly because of them, but instead because they failed to effectively manage the relief for natural disasters. For example, Myanmar were struck by a cyclone in early May 2008 which was described as a massive humanitarian crisis, yet the governor rejected aid from other countries, limiting the aid to what was needed. Thus, leading to the action being described as inadequate and inhumane. This led to countries within the United Nations to meet to discuss whether the situation justified invoking ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine (Evans, 2008). In addition, it was argued that the governor of Myanmar might need to be investigated and potentially prosecuted for the undermining of the violations of international criminal law (United Nations, 2018). It is noteworthy to mention that natural disaster aftermath tends to show pre-existing problems, inequalities and vulnerable parts of society (Futamura et al. 2011). For example, the previous Japan earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 estimated that 56.1% of the deaths were people aged sixty or over (Booth and McCurry,2011). The United Nations have also failed the population many times, as an international organisation that we consider to be helping the world keep order, they have in fact done the opposite in cases such as Haiti. They had no cholera outbreak since the 90’s, yet since the UN deployed a team to help in 2010 it has manifested to be the time that the outbreak of cholera began as it was a result of human interaction (Lantagne et al. 2013). Thus, showing how the state can be held guilty of the consequences of a natural disaster. Moreover, in Rohingya the state were responsible for the horrendous treatment of their citizens. Many citizens who lived in the western Rakhine state were denied citizenship, systematically discriminated against, and segregated, as the state wanted to ‘ethnic cleanse’ against that population following a cyclone (The Guardian, 2017). It is stated that there were horrific violations against the Rohingya state, therefore, showing how a natural disaster can be understood as a state crime.

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States that are left visibly responsible for their action or their lack of, would be going against its own policy and law dealing with Natural disasters (Cohen and Werker, 2008). It can be shown that recent prosecutors have become aggressive in bringing in those that are believed to be responsible for creating or aggravating disasters. The defendants can include corporations, employees and government officials which can occur in both civil and common law jurisdictions (Binder, 2015).  It can be argued that the rule of law needs to be strengthened as international communities have a “responsibility to protect” its population from natural disasters (United Nations, 2006). A development within international law has been altered to the “three pillar” approach for states as making it the primary responsibility for the protection of its population (United Nation, 2009). However, the intervention in Libya 2011 lead to criticisms that the council’s adjustment was misused and abused to achieve a regime change, reinforcing how a state can be liable for not intervening appropriately (Booth, 2011).

Another way to understand how natural disasters can be a state crime is through the defence ‘Act of God’ within prosecution. This defence was brought in to acquit states for not feeling personally responsible for their response as they may prefer to cut expenditure on disaster relief according to Smith (1996). Thus, showing how if the state is capable of being a criminal for a natural disaster due to non-adequate responses because they cut legal aid (The Guardian, 2018). Applying this defence on hurricane Sandy, it was clear to see that the US have had many storms throughout the years and there is more technology to detect and act before it occurs. The storm did cause injury and death, but could have been prevented, ultimately leading to absolute liability (Kennerly, 2012).

In conclusion it is clear to see that natural disasters can be seen as a state crime in various ways, such as failing to act when loss of life is apparent. States are not normally associated with being liable for a natural disaster, as normally they are ignored and referred to as natural causes. The United Nations who are there to keep order internationally failed more than once to stop state crimes from happening, for example the case of Rohingya. The application of criminal law was needed in the instance for when states fail to effectively respond, evoking “responsibility to protect”. Also, states need to have preventive measures in place in order to stop the disasters by not cutting relief aid and knowing how it will make their citizens vulnerable to loss and death, reinforcing how natural disasters can be seen as a state crime.


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