Chicago Journal of International Law


From a public health perspective, it is difficult to define exactly what a catastrophe is. Catastrophes can be of sudden onset or they can develop slowly; they can be the result of natural causes, such as hurricanes, droughts, or earthquakes, or they can be man-made, a consequence of war or of terrorist acts. Some would say that the distinction between these is not totally clear-even in earthquakes, for example, mortality rates are predictably higher among the poor, those who live in housing that does not conform to local construction standards. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 did not spare anyone on the basis of socioeconomic status, but those with means were able to rebuild, rehabilitate, and reconstruct their lives much more rapidly and more completely than those who had only minimal assets. Finally, the plight of the poor left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, one of the world's most recent major catastrophes, was visible on televisions around the world. The blurriness of the lines between these categories, acute versus slow onset and natural versus man-made disaster, has led some to coin the term "complex emergency." The global response to complex emergencies has become a subject of relatively recent study and many of its medical, engineering, and even legal ramifications are still being refined. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition of exactly what constitutes a complex emergency. One common description, initially promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lead public health agency of the United States government, contends that complex emergencies are "situations affecting large civilian populations that usually involve a combination of factors including war or civil strife, food shortages, and population displacement, resulting in significant excess mortality." This definition is obviously imprecise, but it is clear that events such as the outpouring of hundreds of thousands of Hutus into neighboring Tanzania and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda generally fit the definition. The displacement of villagers in the Darfur region of Sudan, fleeing both to more southern parts of that country and over the border to Chad, is another clear-cut example of a complex emergency. [CONT]