The United Nations has played a vital role in improving the governance of natural hazards including volcanoes. The UN's International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction 1990-2000 generated an increased interest in and concern for disaster-related issues and in particular proactive risk prevention. World Disaster Conferences in Yokohama (1994) and Hyogo (2005) and regional conferences, such as those in Latin-America in Cartagena (1994) and Manizales (2004), have led to action priorities, guidelines and policy tools. A Global Assessment Report is now issued every two years.
But little has changed since Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General of the UN, said in 1999 "Prevention and mitigation are not only more humane than cure: they are also much cheaper… The scientific community understands the importance of the connection between disasters, climate change and policy makers. Prevention policy is too important to be left to governments and international agencies alone. That is a mistake. In order to succeed it must also engage civil society, private sector and the media. We know what has to be done. What is now required is the political and social commitment to do it."
The driver for "renewed political and social commitment" is likely to come from an unexpected source. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitutes the first international instrument to detail the rights and freedoms of individuals. These rights have been reflected regionally in Europe and Latin America respectively by the European (1950) and American (1969) Conventions on Human Rights.
In the context of natural hazards, recent court cases in Strasbourg, France (Guerra v Italy, Oneryldiz v Turkey, Budayeva v Russia, Kolyadenko v Russia) and San Jose, Costa Rica (Claude Reyes v Chile) have clarified the rights to life, private and family life, and freedom of information. States have a positive mandatory duty to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of citizens in their jurisdiction. They must put in place legislative and administrative frameworks, assess risks, implement control measures and have a coherent supervisory system to ensure responsible state institutions and individuals perform. Particular emphasis has been placed upon on the public's right to information. It has been stated that the provision of information encourages democratic control by society, fosters transparency in State activities and promotes the accountability of State officials. States must provide appropriate procedures for identifying and punishing any shortcomings.
These onerous State duties will result in prudent decision makers at all levels requiring earlier, better and clearer input from earth and social scientists, who will play a more significant and better integrated role in risk management decision-making and the communication of comprehensible information to an increasingly demanding, knowledgeable and critical civil society. It is inevitable that, when things go wrong, earth science and scientists, whether they like it or not, will be important players in post facto procedures to identify shortcomings.
A new, and perhaps tense, relationship will develop between scientists and decision makers - one characterised by a robust dialogue about long-standing themes such as risk perception, scientific and technological uncertainty, probability and trust. If these complex and sensitive matters are not carefully identified, discussed and finessed before a crisis, they will inevitably form the subject matter of unseemly, public post-facto scrutiny such as that seen following the earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy.
My aim is provoke a healthy debate about the barriers that separate good science and better political and social commitment.
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