Human Rights in Humanitarian Action

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defines human rights protection as ensuring respect for human rights in concrete ways. The 2005 OHCHR Plan of Action goes on to say that “[h]uman rights protection is not a specific tool or approach, but rather refers to a desired outcome – where rights are acknowledged, respected and fulfilled by those under a duty to do so, and as a result of which dignity and freedom is enhanced. Human rights protection results when, through specific actions, individuals who otherwise would be at risk or subject to deprivation of their rights, are able to fully exercise them. It is based on international law, and necessarily focuses on both immediate responses where people are threatened, and on longer-term work to build and strengthen laws and institutions that protect rights.”

Human rights protection is at the core of humanitarian action as humanitarian crises, both conflicts and natural disasters, almost invariably result in human rights concerns. Pre-existing human rights concerns may trigger a crisis or exacerbate the adverse impact on the affected population. It is also clear that measures can effectively be taken before a crisis occurs to address risks, by enhancing the human rights protection of the affected population. 

Most conflicts are rooted in or characterized by large scale or systematic violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. While natural hazards are not disasters, in and of themselves, they become disasters negatively affecting the enjoyment of human rights depending on the elements of exposure, vulnerability and resilience, all factors that can be addressed by human action. Integrating human rights considerations into the multilateral humanitarian system’s planning, preparedness, response and recovery efforts is necessary to address the related challenges.

Swift and decisive efforts to protect human rights are imperative during conflict in order to stop or reduce the likelihood of future violations stemming from the conflict. In the recovery from a conflict, it is important that strengthening human rights protection becomes the objective of action: arrangements such as peace agreements that are built on respect for human rights and accountability provide guarantees and safeguards for the affected population and are more likely to achieve peace and development.

In the case of natural disasters, a failure (by governments and others) to take reasonable preventive action, as well as to provide effective mitigation, is a human rights issue. Integrating human rights in the response will for example prevent discrimination in the distribution of aid, identify and address the situation of those most marginalised and vulnerable to abuse and propose appropriate measures.

Integrating human rights at the core of humanitarian action strengthens the protection response and ensures that efforts are holistic and focused on the ‘affected population’ as a whole rather than only certain segments of it.