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Advocates or aid workers? Approaches to human rights in humanitarian crises

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:15


Andrew Bonwick, Oxfam

Anneka Van Woudenberg, Human Rights Watch

James Darcy, ODI

1. The eighth meeting in the series was held on Monday 7th March 2005 at ODI and was chaired by James Darcy. The speakers were Anneke Van Woudenberg and Andrew Bonwick.

2. The first speaker, Anneke Van Woudenberg, promoted the idea that human rights should play a central role in humanitarian assistance. People affected by crises were beginning to demand their rights rather than simply humanitarian relief and this was evidenced in recent demonstrations in Kanga Bayanga, eastern DRC, where the local population refused food aid: they did not want humanitarian assistance; they wanted an end to the suffering of conflict and human rights abuses.

3. Van Woudenberg suggested that when we talked about human rights in chronic humanitarian crises, we were talking about the right to life, freedom from torture, rape and arbitrary arrest. Whilst rights were not limited to these, the focus was perhaps necessary given that economic and social rights were less well defined and more difficult to realise in practice.

4. Much of the controversy surrounding human rights in humanitarian action revolved around the principles of neutrality and impartiality. Aid agencies did not operate in a political vacuum and could afford to ignore neither the political context in which they operated nor the human rights violations to which they were witness. Agencies were open to manipulation and aid could be used as a tool. This had happened in Bunia: aid agencies based there when it had been taken over by one of the two main ethnic groups involved in the conflict had been unable to properly coordinate their responses to the manipulation and to speak out with one voice. Recent events in Sudan had raised a similar dilemma.

5. Van Woudenberg suggested that, in reality, situations which required short-term life-saving interventions were rare, particularly in Africa, and the human rights and humanitarian community needed to work together to improve the situation. Agencies increasingly faced ongoing crises where human rights abuses had become entrenched and agencies themselves had become part of the landscape. If their chances of being able to withstand manipulation were to be improved, it was vital for both humanitarian and human rights agencies to speak out and to incorporate human rights into their programming. Using the human rights framework to alter the tone and the nature of advocacy gave agencies greater opportunity to influence the parties to a conflict.

6. A second area of contention was the promotion of the peace and justice agenda in these very difficult conflict situations. Van Woudenberg argued both that justice played an important part in reducing conflict and that agencies had a role to play in that process. The work of the International Criminal Court (http://www.icc-cpi.int/) was just beginning in complex conflicts such as Uganda, the DRC and Sudan and this was raising complicated questions about what agencies did with the information they had about human rights abuses, either during the conflict or by ensuring that it would be available to promote justice when the time came. Agencies needed a much clearer policy on this. Ultimately, whilst the constraints on operational agencies were greater, the agendas of humanitarian and human rights agencies were essentially complementary, and the questions were more about how to get information into the public domain than whether to.

7. The second speaker, Andrew Bonwick, opened with the question of whether human rights continued to apply in humanitarian crises. He argued that advocacy was not necessarily human rights work. In Srebrenica in 1995, despite being both hungry and thirsty, the first question people asked was 'are we safe here?' and the second was 'where is my family?'. For Bonwick, this was not about rights, it was about safety. Darfur had been described as a human rights crisis, but it was questionable whether the people of Darfur saw it that way or were concerned primarily with safety. What was the value of employing human rights language for situations like Darfur, when the same language was being used to talk about school uniforms in the Western press?

8. Human rights had been held to be indivisible, inalienable and universal. The humanitarian agenda was much narrower and focused on ensuring basic subsistence and basic safety. For humanitarians, justice and due process were both held to be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. In northern Uganda, for example, the test would be the question of whether referrals to the International Criminal Court would serve towards meeting the need for safety in the region or work against this.

9. The 1996 joint evaluation of the international response to the Rwanda genocide had concluded that humanitarian action was no substitute for political action. Political action might be a precondition for effective humanitarian action, for example in the form of UN Security Council action. However, whilst humanitarian advocacy was a necessary part of humanitarian action, its effectiveness had to be judged by whether it actually helped to make anyone safer in contexts such as Darfur. Humanitarian advocacy was concerned not only with political level negotiation, but also with local level action to deliver on basic humanitarian needs, and this was as much about negotiation with district officers as with officials at the national or international levels.

10. Another area of contention identified by Bonwick was the relationship between human rights and humanitarian principles. Whilst there was no real conflict between human rights / humanitarian advocacy and the requirements of impartiality (that assistance be provided on the basis of need and need alone), the more difficult dilemmas were in relation to the principle of neutrality. Neutrality could be understood either as 'not taking sides' in a conflict, or as not doing anything to involve the agency in political controversy. The latter, however, was unavoidable. Whilst it was important not to be party political, humanitarian agencies could not be apolitical. Oxfam's country director had been asked by the government to leave Sudan at the end of last year because of a statement which he had made. A constant balance had to be sought between the need to continue working in a country and to speak out.

11. International law had been defined as a process of decision-making based on norms and desired outcomes (Rosalyn Higgins). This went beyond the rule-based approach - which in its focus on the gap between law and the reality of violations was destined to result in constant frustration - towards an understanding of the law as a process into which values became gradually incorporated. The norms governing UN Security Council intervention had evolved from a stark reluctance to intervene in Biafra to the point where the necessity of involvement in Darfur was considered a given.

12. Bonwick suggested that law should be first used as a benchmark against which to measure the treatment which people could expect to receive and, secondly, as a mechanism for locating responsibility and determining who advocacy should be aimed at. Another argument often put forward was that the law could command and entail enforcement. However, Bonwick suggested that, in reality, this was a weak tool at the international level. When people were not likely to respond well to being told what to do, political and moral arguments were necessary, and these could be humanitarian rather than legal.

13. Bonwick concluded that, whilst there was some complementarity between humanitarian and human rights agendas, the overlap was not total. Agencies needed to focus on the areas of common concern and complementarity. Whilst advocacy was an essential component of humanitarian action, agencies needed to consider the timescales required for successful advocacy, particularly given that humanitarian actors tended to think in weeks or months rather than the longer-term. Finally, if law was not to serve as a dangerous excuse for inaction, it needed to be used as one of a range of tools by which to bring about humanitarian outcomes and defend humanitarian norms.

14. A central theme of the discussion was the relationship between human rights and humanitarian needs, including the difference between rights-based and needs-based approaches in practice. It was suggested that the Sphere project (http://www.sphereproject.org/) had started out as an explicit attempt to link needs and rights, and might become a tool for RBA in practice. Could a rights-based approach also serve as a tool for strengthening NGO accountability given that it provided clear standards?

15. Much of the discussion focused on the question of what was to be gained from adopting the language and perspective of rights, rather than humanitarian needs or any other approach. Women's rights provided an example of the added-value, particularly in addressing sexual and gender-based violence. The emphasis on rights shifted the focus away from rape as a reproductive health issue, requiring palliative care and post-rape counselling, towards a focus on rape as a human rights violation, which required redress and preventative action to be taken.

16. However, Bonwick suggested that many of these issues related to the question of what was understood by humanitarian need. The 'protection' agenda had been essentially about including safety as a humanitarian need. Agencies were often engaged with efforts to get people to stop doing various things, and the question was whether rights were the only or the best way to do this. He suggested that there was a certain 'tyranny' associated with human rights practices and the documenting and monitoring of individual human rights violations rather than a focus on the impact of those violations to the community at large.

17. There were also questions about priorities between rights or particular classes of rights. Van Woudenberg pointed out that civil and political rights had become much better established and incorporated into international law. There were debates within Human Rights Watch and Amnesty about the "less hardcore" economic and social rights but the view was that, in conflict crises, the more critical civil and political rights necessarily took priority. Against this, it was suggested that the exclusion of health from the list of rights which should be accorded priority by human rights organisations was not likely to be shared by those suffering from disease or HIV/AIDS in crises, and did not reflect the reality of priorities on the ground. An alternative perspective, which sought to reconcile these two apparently conflicting positions, was that there was no incompatibility between believing that all rights were of equal value (with no inherent hierarchy), and agreeing a priority agenda for action on rights within a given context.

18. A number of points were raised in relation to civil society and local stakeholders. It was pointed out that the costs of speaking out did not concern only the international staff, but also country staff and the thousands of human rights defenders around the world who put their lives on the line. There were also questions about how far human rights advocacy could be anything but normative and value-driven when the state in question was not a signatory to the international conventions. In these countries and elsewhere, international agencies still tended to neglect the role of civil society and of local and national NGOs in developing a strong advocacy movement.

19. This raised the issue of how far advocacy was likely to constitute a political agenda. It was suggested that, in Latin America, the human rights agenda was more political than in some other contexts, with the result that there was less of a cross-over between human rights and humanitarian agendas and they may even become incompatible. In these contexts, or where donor agencies were essentially prohibited by their mandates from doing human rights work, the language of humanitarian need and the need for safety might be more effective. Consideration of the relationship between human rights and the state or political agendas also raised questions about who was likely to be safer and whose voice more effective in pursuing advocacy at the local, national or international levels.

20. In this respect, it was argued that a careful consideration of risks, as well greater coordination between actors at each of these levels was required. However, there were questions about the extent to which greater coordination was both practicable and desirable. Whilst humanitarian agencies had been known to use the backdoor to get information on abuses out to human rights agencies without jeopardising their neutrality, such efforts were sporadic and, given the extent of the risks, were also highly dependent on the context and personalities involved. Finally, it was suggested that whilst offering no easy solutions, the tension between human rights and humanitarian agencies might be helpful, in challenging each other, helping to keep both on the right track and in addressing different aspects of crises, so that whilst there might be complementarity, the efforts to seek convergence might be at best misguided.

Lin Cotterrell
March 2005


This meeting explored two contrasting approaches to human rights in humanitarian crises, examining the extent to which human rights and humanitarian action form a common, complementary or conflicting agenda. What is a rights-based approach to humanitarian programming? Is it preferable to an approach that views the role of humanitarian action as being to fill the void between human rights rhetoric and reality?