How President Obama Can Protect Our Common Home

How President Obama Can Protect Our Common Home
October 12, 2009

Monique Harden, Co-Director & Attorney
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights

Submission to The New Orleans Tribune

Our environment is our common home, and in this home we all live with massive coastal erosion, inadequate flood protection, and sea level rise with the threat of increasingly severe storms due to climate change. These environmental conditions contributed to the displacement of nearly 1,000,000 people when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Region. What has been lacking in the years following Katrina and successive hurricanes is a federal government that assumes the same kind of responsibility that it does in foreign countries when people are forced to flee their homes as a result of a disaster. This responsibility entails preventing or at least mitigating the environmental conditions that can cause people to become displaced, and extends to protecting the rights of displaced people to permanent housing, healthcare and mental health services, education, and employment opportunities. President Obama has the legal authority and the moral imperative to take on this responsibility, and here’s how he can do it.

First, the legal authority. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the federal law that provides the President with broad discretionary authority in responding to a national disaster. This means – as former President George W. Bush knew all too well – there is no governmental accountability. It would be strategic for President Obama to start now to work with Congress to overhaul this law to require governmental accountability. President Obama can lead the way by establishing a just and equitable recovery agenda for the Gulf Region that entails coastal restoration, effective flood protection, and meeting other critical needs for affordable housing, healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. Such an agenda should provide Gulf Region residents with seats at the tables where recovery policies and funding will be decided.

The particulars of a just and equitable recovery agenda are found in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a policy that our government has advocated for in international arenas and, with our tax dollars, applies abroad. The US State Department’s USAID Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy describes the Guiding Principles as “a useful tool and framework” for ensuring the recovery of people displaced by a disaster. In fact, our government has celebrated foreign countries that have adopted the Guiding Principles as law. According to the Guiding Principles, it is an obligation of national governments to prevent or mitigate conditions that can cause population displacement; protect the rights of displaced persons to voluntarily return home or resettle elsewhere in the country; prevent “ethnic cleansing” or any action that is aimed at or results in the alteration of the racial, ethnic or religious composition of the affected population; ensure the participation of displaced persons in recovery decision-making; and support displaced persons to access permanent housing, healthcare, education, and employment opportunities.

As for the moral imperative, the social justice values that President Obama upholds compel action that makes recovery a reality. The moral imperative is magnified by the collective struggles of children, women, and men from the Gulf Region who continue to suffer the destabilizing and traumatic effects of displacement brought on by an unsustainable environment and prolonged by the absence of governmental accountability.