David Rutherford: New Zealand's chance to get a disaster recovery right

David Rutherford: New Zealand's chance to get a disaster recovery right

November 24, 2016

As cities and towns across the country rattle and roll with aftershocks and the clean-up from the recent earthquake continues, there will be thousands of people looking to the experiences of those in Canterbury for ideas about what to do next. 

At this early stage, we are seeing positive improvements in process. 

We are seeing local and central government and community coming together - as is often the case the local marae has taken in hundreds of stranded people, while Ngai Tahu iwi stepped in quickly with donations - including tonnes of kaimoana. 

However, we are also seeing decisions being made from afar without the necessary engagement with the affected people on the ground.  The decision making around the access of Hurunui farmers to their farms looks like an example of that. Thankfully, the Minister of Civil Defence and the Hurunui Mayor got involved, but it shouldn’t have taken their involvement to get the local views better listened to. 

It is important that we continue to build on the achievements and learnings for the good of the people impacted this time, as well as to show Canterbury residents that their experiences were not in vain.

It is important that we look to things like the Commission’s best practice guidelines for prioritising vulnerable customers, which were developed for members of the Insurance Council of New Zealand following the Canterbury earthquakes, for the right way to do things moving forward. 

Earlier this month, the Commission released a report that focused on the human rights impacts of the Canterbury residential red zone decisions and laid out a very clear case for property rights in New Zealand to be better protected. 

Staying in the Red Zones: Monitoring human rights in the Canterbury earthquake recovery’ now serves as a guide for the Government, insurers, local councils, service providers and those who have a role to play in disaster preparedness, prevention and recovery as to what to do better this time. 

When writing the report, we imagined that the future scenario for putting into practice what we all learned from Christchurch would be further off than this. In the report, we included a Human Rights Checklist to improve processes and outcomes for those impacted by disaster. 

The checklist can be summed up in four key concepts – communication, recognition, participation and legislation.  

First, communication needs of people affected by disasters are not confined to the immediate post- disaster period. Affected people need information to make decisions, they need to participate in decisions that affect them and their communities, and they need coordinated service delivery. 

Second, recognition of people’s needs, situations and experiences is vital to providing the best solutions. 

There is no one-size-fits-all for disasters: there needs to be flexibility to consider individual circumstances. No two peoples’ experiences will be the same and recognising those differences will have a huge influence on how people feel in the coming weeks, months and years. 

Third, ensure people are given the opportunity to participate and engage meaningfully in the design, planning and implementation of the various stages of the disaster response. The requirement to act quickly must be weighed against the need to actively engage community in the design and implementation of solutions. 

A ‘nothing about us without us’ approach requires time, resources, and public and political will, but is essential to ensure that people are not passive recipients of disaster recovery response and risk reduction, but are actively involved in shaping it.

Finally, ensure that all recovery activity is guided by legislation and limited to the powers provided by Parliament. The need to better protect property laws in New Zealand was a key finding from the report and is an issue that remains unresolved. 

The better protection of property rights will not happen overnight and our immediate focus needs to be on helping those badly affected by the most recent quakes get back on their feet. 

David Rutherford, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

David Rutherford was appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner on September 2011. Prior to his appointment, he was the managing director of Special Olympics Asia Pacific and based in Singapore.

He has held senior executive roles in building materials and agribusiness businesses operating in New Zealand and Australia, has been chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union and has worked as a corporate, securities and commercial lawyer in New Zealand and Canada.

Mr Rutherford has a strong history of involvement in sports and has lectured in sports law at Victoria University. He has been a volunteer Board member in rugby union, netball, Paralympics New Zealand, Special Olympics New Zealand, Special Olympics International and for the Attitude Trust.