No longer an option but a necessity: cooperation between humanitarian and human rights organisations
by Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop February 1997

On 9 February 1996, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) hosted a conference of 200 humanitarian workers and human rights specialists in Amsterdam, to discuss opportunities and mechanisms for cooperation.

The meeting was a success. The attendance of large numbers of staff from both types of organisations proved that they share a belief that humanitarian and human rights organisations have a common aim; namely to alleviate human suffering and restore and ensure respect for human dignity. It was widely recognised that humanitarian and human rights concerns are inextricably linked.

The Conference identified areas where contacts between the humanitarian and human rights world should be enhanced: the collecting, sharing and passing on of information, lobbying, campaigning and training. The Conference considered the issue of humanitarian or human rights NGOs providing information or giving testimonies to the two ad-hoc international criminal tribunals, and concluded that the relationship between both them and the Tribunals needed to be explored further.

After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, many NGOs felt that it was time to convert what were essentially common concerns into effective action. Eventually, this led to the idea within MSF to hold a conference on cooperation between humanitarian and human rights organisations.

During the Cold War, humanitarian and human rights organisations developed separately, each protective of its own agenda. Yet, this dichotomy cannot be maintained any longer. Humanitarian and human rights NGOs have a common responsibility in defining new strategies so as to better mobilise public opinion and generate political will for international action.

The will or (moral) duty to speak out against gross and massive human rights violations witnessed by humanitarian staff in the course of their duties has always been hotly debated. Some claim that maintaining good relations with authorities to achieve and maintain access is in contradiction with denouncing those authorities for committing atrocities.

Others have indicated that there can be no international ‘silent witnesses’.

A rather simple solution which bypasses this inherent tension in combining humanitarian assistance with human rights advocacy is to disseminate the information through a third party that does not reveal its source. This third party can be a United Nations human rights mechanism such as a country or thematic rapporteur or a human rights NGO.

It is only recently that UN human rights mechanisms and human rights NGOs have shown interest in addressing gross and massive human rights violations in conflict areas on a more permanent basis.

Both the UN and organisations such as Amnesty International have set up field operations in Rwanda. In a number of instances, MSF has acted as a ‘pathfinder’ for the human rights monitors of the UN human rights field operation for Rwanda. This ‘pathfinding’ role is a rather low-risk exercise in which the humanitarian organisation gives out a ‘hidden’ signal in order to draw the fact-finding attention of the monitors.

In other areas, MSF has had contact with UN human rights rapporteurs who had no, or only limited access to places where MSF maintained a presence.

Many humanitarian staff are unaware that their mundane daily routine may provide useful indicators for those collecting human rights information. The information that such staff are normally able to provide tends to be of a predominantly humanitarian and medical nature, rather than what is usually perceived to be ‘genuine’ human rights information.

Yet keeping statistics of war trauma among civilians may reveal patterns of large scale indiscriminate attacks that can be qualified as grave breaches of humanitarian law.

For human rights and humanitarian organisations to cooperate effectively, transparency is needed. Too often, MSF staff have been interviewed by a human rights mission without knowing what is being done with their information. If the human rights organisation decides to produce an external report which is, inter alia, based on information from humanitarian organisations, the recommendations made by the report should be shared beforehand with the humanitarian organisations concerned.

Training is another field for the exchange of views and experiences. Today, every relief worker needs training in human rights and humanitarian law (see also Network Paper 19 by James Darcy). The larger humanitarian organisations may be able to employ in-house specialists to this end. However, smaller organisations may contract human rights staff for this training. If a humanitarian organisation wishes to be more alert to human rights violations and take a more pro-active role in searching for information, such training should involve interviewing and recording techniques.

Through these means, humanitarian organisations will be able to be more systematic in the collection of stories of sometimes gravely traumatised refugees who have fled a war zone, and ensure that valuable information does not get lost.

Human rights and humanitarian organisations should also consider whether to establish mechanisms to discuss the human rights impact of assistance programmes.

Clearly, humanitarian assistance should be sensitive to the human rights of the target population. However, humanitarian organisations have frequently been confronted with requests of governments to assist a population in a way that actually facilitates human rights violations.

For example, how should a humanitarian organisation react to a request of a government to deliver aid in camps set up to force a population to leave a certain area. Improvement of the humanitarian conditions for the population and the fact of an international presence should be weighed against the forced displacement of the population. This is not a dilemma that can be solved by humanitarian organisations alone.

With this in mind, cooperation between humanitarian and human rights organisations is no longer merely an option, but a necessity. If we look at the present state of the world’s populations in danger, our common responsibility overrides questions over mandates or fear of the loss of identities.

The key is to mutually reinforce each other by using our comparative advantages of humanitarian access and human rights knowledge and expertise.

Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop is a policy advisor on humanitarian affairs at MSF – Amsterdam.