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Was Katrina a human-rights disaster?
Boalt experts join coalition asking international commission to look into 'discriminatory' federal response to the hurricane

| 08 March 2006

In the view of two Berkeley human-rights experts - individuals who are no strangers to war-torn regions and human rights abuses in developing countries - the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina has been so poor that an international body needs to investigate.

Working with a coalition of national organizations and community groups based in cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Laurel Fletcher and Roxanna Altholz of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley's School of Law (Boalt Hall) successfully petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct a public hearing on human rights and natural disasters - and the United States' response to Katrina. The hearing was held on Friday, March 3, at the commission headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The commission is an independent human-rights body established by the Organization of American States, an international organization comprising countries in the Americas. Its central mission is to protect and promote human rights through on-site visits and hearings. Through these methods, the quasi-judicial organization successfully pressures countries to reform policies and practices.

The members of the groups who testified before the commission are not only leaders of their local organizations but, as Gulf Coast residents themselves, victims of the hurricane. In all, 27 organizations are involved in this effort, including the Advancement Project, Equal Justice Center, Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, National Immigration Law Center, People's Hurricane Relief Oversight Coalition, and Southern Poverty Law Center.

The goal of Friday's testimony was to convince the commission to conduct an on-site visit to the Gulf Coast region, formally investigate the matter, and publish a report articulating measures that federal, state, and local governments should adopt to bring their practices in line with international human- rights standards.

The groups' central allegation is that the United States discriminated against low-income African American and immigrant communities during disaster planning and response - and is doing the same in the current phase of recovery.

For example, they say, most of the 100,000 people left behind in the rising flood waters in New Orleans were low-income African Americans who did not own cars and had to rely on public assistance that never came. Many immigrants did not learn of the danger until it was too late because hurricane warnings and evacuation orders were issued only in English. And, the group contends, many who survived the storm but lost everything never sought help because the U.S. government refused to issue an assurance that survivors seeking federal assistance would not be prosecuted for immigration violations.

"The government failed to address our concerns, so we felt compelled to appeal to an international body," says Shana Griffin of Insight New Orleans, a member of People's Hurricane Relief Fund, one of the 27 organizations that requested the hearing. "Our communities were ignored during evacuation, we were ignored by the relief efforts, and now, six months after Katrina, our voices are being drowned out during reconstruction."

In addition, the groups report that employers often fail to pay individuals they hire to help rebuild these communities. Further, they contend, employers often fail to provide workers with medical care and do little to protect them from on-the-job environmental hazards. Some immigrants who perform cleanup work in the region are doing so without proper training and gear, exposing themselves to mold and, in some cases, asbestos.

During Friday's hearing, the law clinic at Boalt Hall presented the international commission with a document requesting that the commission direct the U.S. government, as a member of the international body, to take specific "interim measures" to provide immediate assistance to immigrant survivors living in tents and to prepare adequately for the onset of the 2006 hurricane season, which is only three months away.

In addition, law-clinic students drafted a document outlining the impact of Katrina on the human rights of low-income African American and immigrant communities, and presented that document during the hearing as well.

The clinic is typically involved with human-rights concerns abroad. Clinic officials and students have handled discrimination cases out of the Dominican Republic as well as worked on reports of potential human- rights abuses following the Asian tsunami.

"The level of destruction wrought by Katrina is astonishing," says Altholz, who along with Fletcher drove though the Gulf Coast states in January to explore whether the knowledge they'd gained from work on the Asian tsunami might be of service following a massive natural disaster on U.S. soil. "But what was particularly striking," she continues, "is that the richest and most powerful country in the world failed to protect those most vulnerable and violated their rights as victims of natural disasters to food, water, clothing, and shelter."