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Human rights are key in relief efforts

Meeting on Human Rights in Humanitarian Emergency Response. © UN Photo/Devra BerkowitzUp to 50 million people are displaced by natural disasters each year, according to the United Nations. Last year, nearly 30 million people were internally displaced by conflict and violence.

These numbers, however, do not come close to describing the extent of the misery and human rights abuses suffered by displaced people, especially the most at risk including children, women and the elderly.

Yet just over a decade ago, there was no comprehensive legal or operational framework for protecting the rights of internally displaced persons – those who are forced to flee their homes but remain within their country's borders.

In 1998, the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons presented to the Commission on Human Rights (succeeded by the Human Rights Council) the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, developed in consultation with key humanitarian actors and international legal experts.

The Guiding Principles build on norms of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law to provide practical guidance for the protection of displaced persons in all phases of displacement.

Recognized by world leaders at the United Nations summit of 2005 as “an important international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons,” the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement have become an essential legal and operational tool in emergency situations.

This is but one example of the contribution of the human rights mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council, collectively known as Special Procedures, to humanitarian emergency response, the subject of a panel discussion at the United Nations in New York on 15 July.

Observing that “the issue is no longer whether there should be a human rights-based approach to relief, but rather how best to implement it,” Kyung-wha Kang, the Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and moderator of the panel, cited many other examples of how Special Procedures Mechanisms contribute to humanitarian response.

She highlighted the role of Special Procedures Mechanisms in providing operational guidelines; raising awareness, advocacy and mobilizing humanitarian actors around major human rights concerns; and providing critical technical support.

The panelists, who included Special Procedures mandate holders, United Nations agencies and civil society actors, underlined the importance of integrating a human rights-based approach in all phases of an emergency.

Rashida Manjoo, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, noted that pre-existing vulnerabilities and patterns of discrimination against women are often exacerbated in the aftermath of an emergency.

“Humanitarian responses can be more efficient and have greater impact when opportunities for positive change in gender roles, created or expanded by crisis situations, are enhanced and sustained during the emergency and post-emergency phases,” she said.

Michel Forst, the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti, echoed the importance of applying the human rights-based approach to all stages of an emergency. If Haiti’s reconstruction plan is to succeed, he said, it should have an explicit place for human rights, indicating the very purpose of reconstruction is to enable Haitians to reclaim their rights.

Civil society representatives noted that while some humanitarian actors may be confronted with human rights violations, they may lack the mandate to respond. Strengthened cooperation with Special Procedures mandate holders would help to close that gap. They agreed, however, that humanitarian organisations should never remain silent in the face of human rights violations.

 “It is no longer acceptable for the protection of human rights to be either an unwonted or an unwanted aspect of the work of assistance agencies,” said Gerald Martone of the International Rescue Committee.

The panel discussion was organized by the United Nations Human Rights office (OHCHR) in the context of the Humanitarian Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

See webcast of the panel discussion

27 July 2010