Human Rights Nonsense (37): Comparing Human Rights Violations to Natural Disasters

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human rights nonsense
comparing the tsunami to 9-11

“The Tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11″

(source, click image to enlarge)

I think I can guess most people’s reaction to this infamous WWF advert comparing the death tolls of 9/11 to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami:

How can you compare these two events? They are completely different in nature: one is a wanton act of cruelty inflicted by humans on other humans, while the other is an unfortunate natural disaster. A terrorist attack is a type of event that one can and should try to prevent – through force, violence, education, information and whatever else it takes – while a natural disaster is a type of event that is an inevitable feature of life on earth. If you equate the two types – which is in essence what you do when you compare the death tolls – then you ignore personal responsibility and agency, and you degrade humanity.

This is more or less correct, I think, but I would add one nuance. The two types of events are different and they shouldn’t be equated, but there’s one similarity: both are, after all, human rights violations. This may sound strange to many of you: how can nature violate human rights? Doesn’t a human rights violation require a responsible violator? I’ve argued in this older post that the cut-off point between rights violations and unfortunate harm is actually a rather large gray zone. For instance, the Boxing Day Tsunami would probably have had a much smaller death toll with a better warning system, better infrastructure, better houses, better rescue systems etc. And people are responsible for the lack of those things. If people and governments fail to provide those things, knowing full well the risks, then their omission is a rights violation, just like failing to rescue a drowning person is a rights violation. (For instance, low-income countries account for only 9% of the world’s disasters but 48% of the fatalities, source).

Hence, it is indeed nonsensical and even insulting to equate a natural disaster and a terrorist attack, and people are rightfully angry about adverts like the one above, but at the same time we shouldn’t let our anger blind us to the similarities between two types of events that are apparently incomparable.

Here are a few similar adverts:

9-11 advert

“2,863 dead. 630 million homeless people in the world. The world united against terrorism. It should do the same against poverty.”

9-11 advert

“2,863 dead. 40 million infected worldwide. The world united against terrorism. It should do the same against AIDS.”

terrorism-related deaths since 2001 11 337 - tobacco-related deaths since 2001 30 000 000

terrorism-related deaths since 2001: 11 337 – tobacco-related deaths since 2001: 30 000 000


9-11 advert


More posts in this series are here.


  1. When I saw the ad, I thought it was pretty interesting but, like yourself, I knew it would be perceived negatively.
    I suppose that can partially be attributed to the righteous attitude possessed by the country at the time- the presence of an obvious perpetrator and relatable victims versus a sea of unfamiliar East-Asian faces and uncertainty as to who to blame (nature? the government?)

  2. Pingback: A Study of the History of US Intelligence Community Human Rights Violations and Continuing Research | USA COINTELPRO VICTIM OF THE PATRIOT ACT

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