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Approaches to human rights in humanitarian crises

Working papers

In recent years, an increasing number of humanitarian actors, including governments, official donors, UN agencies and NGOs, have adopted the language of human rights and human rights-based approaches (HRBA) in their policies and programming. In part, this trend is a response to criticisms that humanitarian action was failing to promote human rights. To date, however, there has been relatively little research on how far human rights can – or should – contribute towards humanitarian outcomes. There are also some very real questions about how far human rights instruments can be applied in situations of violent insecurity. This background paper for ODI's event series on Human Rights and Poverty Reduction investigates.

The first section of this paper examines the relationship between human rights law and international humanitarian law (IHL). It suggests that IHL is fundamentally pragmatic, intended to limit the suffering that war inflicts but not in itself to protect the more ambitious claims of human rights. Human rights law, on the other hand, deals primarily with the relationship between the individual and the state during peacetime. As a result, there is a risk

that those suffering from human rights abuses during situations of conflict and violent insecurity may be left without effective protection in international law. This paper suggests that more needs to be done to adapt human rights instruments to these contexts, and draws on examples of recent legal initiatives to extend human rights protection to the victims of conflict and insecurity.

For operational agencies, the question of what to do in the meantime remains to be answered. The following sections consider the strategies available to agencies seeking to promote human rights in situations of violent insecurity, including political advocacy and HRBA to humanitarian programming. The paper suggests that whilst sharing a common core of concern, human rights and humanitarian agendas may at times conflict, so that difficult choices may have to be made. A clearer understanding of the trade-offs and limitations in pursuing a HRBA in humanitarian crises is vital to informing these real-time decisions.

Lin Cotterrell