“Earthquakes didn’t kill thousands of people, buildings did…”
By Betül Karagedik, Ph.D. Candidate at Galatasaray University
Kahramanmaraş, which is a Southeast province of Turkey, suffered from a 7.7 magnitude earthquake at 04:17 on the night of the 6th of February, followed by a second 7.6 magnitude earthquake 9 hours later. These earthquakes caused devastating impact in both Turkey and Syria. Thousands of people died, thousands were injured, many have been missing, and millions were left homeless and displaced in the middle of winter. Not only the right to life, but also different human rights violations occured in the aftermath of the earthquakes; such as, the right to respect for private and family life, the right to a clean healthy and sustainable environment, the right to property, the right to education, and the right to housing.
Although these earthquakes were powerful, the experts conclude that well-constructed buildings should have been able to stay standing. A striking photo below from Kahramanmaraş, the earthquake’s epicenter, confirmed this approach. Although all the buildings around it were destroyed after the earthquake, the structure of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) remained undamaged.
These observations point to just one implication: “earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do”. In this context, this article will examine the devastating effects of the earthquakes from the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) perspective and seek answers to issues within the framework of Business and Human Rights.
The State Duty to Protect Human Rights
First of all, it should be said that this earthquake was not a surprise for Turkey. Turkey is an earthquake country, and many experts have warned about possible earthquakes in the region long beforehand. Moreover, in 1999, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.4 occurred in Izmit, which is a city in the Northwest of Turkey, and caused the death of more than 17,000 people. In other words, earthquakes of different magnitudes frequently happen and are not uncommon in Turkey.
According to international human rights law, a state is obliged to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. Protecting and fulfilling human rights impose positive obligations on states, and it is possible to examine the scope of positive obligations by dividing them into two groups. Accordingly, states must take “preventative measures” before human rights violations occur and “corrective measures” after the violation has taken place. In this context, although it is a natural disaster, states also have positive obligations regarding earthquakes. In this regard, before an earthquake, states have obligations to take preventive measures, such as; making a risk assessment to identify areas at risk of earthquakes, planning durable construction techniques and emergency response, and establishing other regulatory and non-regulatory safety measures to mitigate these risks. While after the earthquake, the states must take corrective measures, especially by ensuring an effective remedy for the affected rights-holders and sanctions for the perpetrators.
It is emphasized that many parameters contribute significantly to the collapse of buildings in the earthquake, the reporttitled “6 February 2023 Earthquakes Preliminary Investigation Report” published by Istanbul Technical University (ITU). Nevertheless, the report also states that issues such as the poor quality of the materials used in the construction, the age of the buildings, non-conformity of structural system elements with the relevant regulations, and other construction defects were the prominent causes of demolition. In fact, after the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, amendments were made to the relevant laws and earthquake codes, and various preventive measures were taken. However, the collapse of even newly constructed buildings in the earthquake shows that the implementation of the legislation failed and insufficient supervision and control by administrative authorities.
In terms of business and human rights, according to the pillar of state duty to protect human rights in the UNGPs, “[…] States may breach their international human rights law obligations where such abuse can be attributed to them, or where they fail to take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress private actors’ abuse.” In conclusion, when the state does not execute its positive obligations, it means that it has failed its duty to protect and subsequently it is in violation of human rights.
The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights
In the Corporation documentary, Samuel Epstein says: “If I take a gun and shoot you, that is criminal. If I expose you to some chemicals which knowingly are going to kill you, what difference is there? The difference is that it takes longer to kill you.”
Various construction defects emerged in the buildings destroyed after the earthquake. Besides, the construction industry in Turkey knew that Turkey was an earthquake country, and structures had to be built accordingly. In other words, they built houses that are not resistant to earthquakes even though they know the risks. As a matter of fact, the words of Ali Ağaoğlu, one of the famous businessmen of Turkey, became the agenda again after the earthquake. In 2011, he said for buildings in Istanbul: “The sand was coming from the sea. Half mussel shell, half slime, would go to the construction, and the structure would be built.” It is understood from these words that the problems in the construction sector in Turkey are not new and are not limited to a specific region.
An enterprise’s sector and operational context indicate the typical human rights risks it may pose, and “the construction industry has direct and often detrimental impacts on human rights, particularly in the areas of workers’ rights, community and land-rights, environmental protection (e.g., dams, large hydro-electric investments) as well as rights to life and health.” According to the UNGPs, all business enterprises have the responsibility to respect human rights and should carry out human rights due diligence in order to meet this responsibility. Sector-specific qualifications and challenges are guiding in determining the scope of the human rights due diligence process.
In this context, UN Global Compact and RICS have prepared an instrument titled “Advancing Responsible Business in Land, Construction and Real Estate Use and Investment – Making the Sustainable Development Goals a Reality” for the construction sector. It examines the significant issues facing the industry and how they can be addressed within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals. Under the heading of “Quality of planning, design and construction”, this instrument handles issues such as construction materials, safety testing reports, and building codes. The use of inferior quality materials, falsified reporting, poor enforcement, and compromising construction quality and safety are identified as issues to be addressed in the industry. As a result, by adopting a risk-based approach, the human rights due diligence process should focus on these issues to prevent human rights violations in the construction industry.
The earthquake revealed that the contractors in Turkey are not aware of their human rights obligations. In particular, the fact that one of the two side-by-side buildings collapsed while the other remained standing is clear evidence of sub-standard buildings, and this poor-quality structuring in the earthquake-prone area caused terrifying human rights violations for occupiers/users. Therefore, the construction industry, which only aims to maximize its profits, has not conducted its responsibility to respect human rights. After the earthquake, criminal law processes started against contractors, and the Earthquake Crimes Investigation Bureaus were established following the decision by the Ministry of Justice. It can be foreseen that many lawsuits will be brought against the contractors in the coming days, both in terms of criminal law and private law.
Earthquakes in Turkey have irreversibly affected the lives of almost 14 million people in 10 cities. Thousands of people have suffered from severe human rights violations such as the right to life, the right to respect for private and family life, the right to a clean healthy and sustainable environment, the right to property, the right to education, the right to housing, and other rights that may arise. However, regardless of how large these earthquakes were, the damage caused was not unpredictable and unavoidable. It seems that the construction industry’s greed for profit and the state officials’ failure to carry out sufficient supervision and control are the most contributive reasons for the business-related human rights violations that emerged after the earthquake.
Betül Karagedik is a Research Assistant and a Ph.D. candidate at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. Her working fields are International Law, human rights, and business and human rights. Her growing expertise is in the area of business and human rights.
Betül acknowledges Fatmanur Caygın, who offered valuable suggestions for this piece.