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Disaster Response and Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo: FDR Library

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), written to address the atrocities committed during World War II. Since then, the United Nations and other bodies have adopted additional documents on human rights. The International Bill of Human Rights includes the UDHR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Every year, International Human Rights Day is observed on December 10. To celebrate, we  are reflecting on a few of the articles in the UDHR in the context of disaster response and recovery.


Article 1: All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms in this document, regardless of gender, sex, race, etc.

When a disaster hits a community, everyone is impacted in some way, but all too often,  some populations, including people of color and people living in poverty, are disproportionately affected by disasters and don’t have the resources to recover in the same way as more privileged communities. But after disasters, every human deserves to be able to recover and live with dignity and security, no matter their situation or background.


Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state; Everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.

Article 14: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Lutheran Disaster Response accompanies migrants and refugees around the world. Many are fleeing conflict, local violence, or economic hardships. Additionally, climate change is expected to be the biggest reason for migration this century. When people’s lives are disrupted by drought, constant flooding, hurricane after hurricane, some choose to move to a place less impacted by the intensifying disasters. People have the right to leave their home countries and seek safer lives, whatever the reason.

Alongside local partners, LDR supports refugees in Eastern Europe fleeing countries in the Middle East, Northern Africa and recently, Ukraine. LDR works with AMMPARO to accompany migrants from South and Central America that arrive in the United States.


Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [themself] and [their] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [their] control.

Disasters, whether natural or human-caused, affect the standard of living and quality of life for people impacted. Survivors can lose their home, belongings, jobs and may sustain injury due to disasters. LDR and our partners work to ensure that disaster survivors have the rights of Article 25 upheld. Our partners distribute food, clothing, hygiene supplies and items to ensure an adequate standard of living for disaster survivors. They also provide temporary shelter and repair and rebuild homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people around their world lost their jobs, LDR and our partners provided for families affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic, so people were able to meet their families’ needs.

Effective disaster response upholds all the rights described in the UDHR and subsequent documents. Even when people’s lives are upended by natural or human-caused disasters, their human rights should not be at stake. That’s why the work of LDR and our local partners in the U.S. and around the world is so important – after a disaster, when our neighbors are living in uncertainty, we walk with impacted communities, responding to their needs and supporting recovery efforts while simultaneously celebrating their strength and resilience.


Get involved


  1. Visit the ELCA Advocacy Action Center to contact your congress members about vital issues impacting our communities, including government disaster response program reform and supporting refugees.
  2. By volunteering in local disaster response through your synod or regional social ministry organization, you can ensure that survivors’ right to adequate living is met.
  3. LDR is a trusted partner in disaster response. Your gifts to LDR help accompany our neighbors when their lives are upended by disaster. 100% of your gifts to a designated disaster go to disaster survivors.

Migrants’ human rights

By Rebecca Anderson, Intern at the Lutheran Office for World Community*

According to the International Organization of Migration, today there are an estimated 271.6 million migrants globally. While migrants are not inherently vulnerable, they can be vulnerable to human rights violations, observes the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). It is imperative to protect their human rights.**

Migrants are forced to move for various reasons: governmental oppression, war, famine, climate change and better employment or educational opportunities. The list goes on. Of the 272 million international migrants, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2019 data indicates one in seven migrants are below the age of 20, with Sub-Saharan Africa hosting the highest proportions followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, West Africa and North Africa. In these age groups, the dangers of human rights violations are exponentially increased due to vulnerability factors such as education disruptions, food insecurity and sexual violence.

Fatou “Toufah” Jallow, a 23-year-old activist from The Gambia, left her home country temporarily to retain her safety after experiencing sexual violence until she could return to seek justice. She spoke of her experience on a youth delegate panel I heard at “Celebrating Human Rights Day: Youth standing up for human rights” hosted on Dec. 10*** by OHCHR. In his introductory remarks at the event, Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Gilmour spoke to the “sustained and sometimes ferocious pushback against the entire global human rights agenda that we haven’t seen before.” He highlighted growing “hate speech and prejudice” towards migrants and minorities.

Migration also has gender dimensions that must be considered. In a 2019 report by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants to the Human Rights Council, Felipe González Morales emphasized this and highlighted the need for migration to be understood as a “gendered phenomenon,” enabling member states to better protect the rights of migrant women and girls from gender-based discrimination, abuse and violations at each stage of their journey. Migrants need ensured access to basic services – education, health, water, sanitation and hygiene – and social protection.

As Christians, we all have a common identity as children of a loving God who calls us to reflect love outwards, acting in compassion for our fellow neighbor. The ELCA and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) have been welcoming migrants and refugees for decades. During the negotiations for the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), Lutheran Office for World Community championed migrant human rights. We are members of the NGO Committee on Migration and the Civil Society Action Committee that monitor UN events and meetings on migration and advocate for the full implementation of the GCM and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Migrants are our sisters and brothers in need of our compassion both as individuals and as a community. As Lutherans, we work with migrants from all around the world with aid, respect and inclusivity. We extend our embrace to those of us who must flee from dangerous situations or seek out a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Migrants deserve a life of dignity and freedom to enjoy their inalienable human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


* The Lutheran Office for World Community is a joint ministry of the ELCA and LWF. Staff actively participate together with other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in various UN meetings and consultations.

** Read more in the ELCA social message on “Human Rights” which notes that “staggering numbers of God’s children have not experienced [human rights] advancement” (page 1).

*** Human Rights Day is observed annually on December 10 to celebrate the anniversary of the General Assembly’s adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This momentous document sets out fundamental universal human rights that are to be protected worldwide regardless of race, ethnicity or culture.


Pathway to equality with justice in Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by Christine Mangale, Program Director, Lutheran Office for World Community

A fundamental document turns 70 years of age on Dec. 10, 2018. Translated into 500 languages, its 30 articles guarantee and affirm rights, freedom, inherent dignity and equality of all humankind. Its principles represent tools that have allowed individuals to claim their dignity and provided them an avenue to fight for their rights.

As Lutherans, we join in celebration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We celebrate because we identify with its universal principles of justice and equality. And we celebrate because we were represented at its drafting.


Created in the aftermath of World War II in 1945, the United Nations (UN) was chartered to build a space for multilateralism with the aim of never returning to the scourge of global conflict and work to advance human rights. Following the UN Charter, another foundational text was created: the UDHR. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, the monumental document states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (UDHR Article 1). These rights are to be respected and enjoyed by all.

The UDHR is not a stand-alone agreement. It is further substantiated with the generation of a normative framework known as “international human rights law,” which has offered a legal guidepost for countries and international organizations to universalize rules and principles of conduct that allow states to engage with their citizens and each other.

Elaborating on this framework, the UN has created demographic-specific human rights instruments which build on and reinforce each other to ensure that all people are represented and protected. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both adopted in 1966, affirm individual and state freedoms, especially freedom from violence and torture, and offer equal protection under international law.

Our author, Christine Mangale, standing in front of the United Nations building

These documents are also aspirational, identifying and stating an adequate standard of living for all humankind. These agreements include commitments by states to provide adequate basic needs like food, shelter and clothing by calling them “fundamental rights.”


The Rev. Dr. Frederick Nolde, a Lutheran, contributed to article 18 of the UDHR. Article 18 pertains to the “Right to freedom of thought and religion,” indicating that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest this religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

We have seen firsthand how the UDHR has served as a beacon of hope for the vulnerable and marginalized – allowing them to emerge from the shadows with confidence and in the protection of the international community. This resonates with our call to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).


Dec. 10 also marks the last day of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, a campaign driven by civil society to accelerate action to end violence against women and girls. Structures of inequality are mostly unchanged, and the relationship between men and women remains unequal. There has been failure to address and challenge broader dynamics of patriarchy and inequality among men and women that result in lack of economic and social rights for women and girls. It is time to “Walk our Talk,” the theme of Lutheran World Federation over the 16 days and beyond.


Millions of people are still suffering from poverty, hunger, conflicts, war, gender inequality and unjust systems that leave UDHR promises unfulfilled. We are witnessing a breakdown of international multilateralism, shrinking space for civil society engagement, violations of fundamental human rights with impunity, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, ongoing patriarch and gender-based violence, just to name a few. The aspiration of the UDHR is, therefore, more relevant now than ever. We celebrate how far we have come, yet we must simultaneously examine how little has changed in these 70 years.

Despite it all, as people of faith we remain hopeful. Together we have the power to #standup4humanrights, make a difference for stronger respect, greater freedom and more compassion, and overcome the challenges identified by the UDHR.


Take the Human Rights Pledge organized by the UN and stand in solidarity with victims and survivors of human rights violations. Show love, compassion and empathy to your neighbor. Speak out against violence facing women and girls. Engage your local and national level officials, holding them accountable to international law and principles, and ensuring that they espouse values of respect, dignity and equality.

The next 70 years can take us on a pathway to the realization of the inspiring UDHR message of equality and justice. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”