Haiti Disaster Highlights Need for International Law on “Looting”

March 23, 2010

By Beckey Sukovaty

When desperate Haitian earthquake victims tried to save themselves or rescue others by looking for resources needed to survive in the collapsed buildings of Port-au-Prince, they were often branded “looters.” New Orleans residents in dire need after Hurricane Katrina were similarly condemned.

The mass media has been blamed for how the actions of these survivors are described, but the common use of the term “looter” points to another need. A new convention in international law should be adopted which would redefine the retrieval and use of all available resources to save life and limb as an ethical duty and legal right — rather than morally wrong or illegal.

Rationale

Here’s just one example of many that illustrates why such a new international convention is needed. Reporters from U.S. news agencies asked a young Haitian earthquake victim why he was breaking into the walls of homes damaged in the quake. He said he knew “this is very, very bad” but after several days without a drop to drink he was just “too thirsty,” and was simply trying to reach any water that might be left in the pipes.

Why should survivors like this young man be made to think such an act of survival is somehow bad? It’s not just that he shouldn’t have to bear that emotional burden. Disaster victims need food, water, basic clothing and toiletry items, temporary shelter, first aid items, and tools to aid in rescue and for emergency repairs to render buildings safe and useful as shelter. Any hesitation to make use of the resources at hand likely would result in grave physical harm in this kind of situation, up to and including death.

Make Survival, Not Property, Top Priority

Indeed, disaster relief officials should refrain from beating or shooting at so-called “looters,” as happened in both New Orleans and Port-au-Prince. Instead, they must assist with making sure items useful for survival are made available in as speedy, orderly and safe a way as possible in the circumstances, while helping prevent taking of non-essential items for personal gain.

Beyond the moral imperatives, in a major disaster like an earthquake even many items typically classified as nonperishable quickly go to waste anyway — food cans are dented so contents become unsafe if not used promptly, clothing in collapsed stores without adequate roofs can start to mold and rot in a few days, and so on. Why not put these mounds of future trash to immediate humanitarian use? (It would be relatively easy and inexpensive in the greater scheme of things to provide some sort of compensation for truly nonperishable yet needed items to merchants or property owners “after the fact,” as a routine part of rebuilding efforts.)

Such an international convention should be adopted as soon as possible. Once in place, it needs to be widely publicized in the media. Meanwhile we should avoid references to “looting” in circumstances where disaster victims likely are just trying to help themselves and others survive. Φ

Beckey Sukovaty, M.A., M.P.A., is a Seattle-based certified mediator, adjunct faculty member at Portland State University’s Conflict Resolution Program, and Ph.D. student in Human Development at Fielding Graduate University. She can be contacted at bsukovaty@email.fielding.edu.

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