Issue 13 - Article 10

ECHO Tackles Humanitarian Aid and Human Rights

June 5, 2003

Given the realities of complex emergencies the separation of human rights and humanitarian action has become an obstacle to responding more adequately to this type of crisis: the issue is no longer whether there should be a human rights-based approach to relief, but rather how to give effect to it. Without such an approach the response is likely to be disconnected from the causes of the emergency and ill-adapted to contributing to its resolution on a durable basis. [1]

To better understand the link between humanitarian aid and human rights and what consequences this has for humanitarian operations, ECHO is looking at how its humanitarian assistance can contribute to the protection of human rights. The realities on the ground pose some difficult questions as to how human rights could be integrated into humanitarian aid in practice, and there are inevitably dilemmas and trade-offs to be confronted. Some questions that immediately come to mind include:

  • Is there any sign that humanitarian assistance unintentionally allows or possibly encourages human rights abuses? If so, under what conditions?
  • How have human rights considerations influenced the delivery of aid in practice? Do they clash with an emergency needs definition?
  • Do ‘relief ethics’, as defined by international agencies and donors, help or hinder in ensuring respect for human rights? Again, under what conditions?
  • How could human rights organisations cooperate more closely with those in charge of the actual delivery of humanitarian aid?
  • What dangers are there for aid workers to transmit information about human rights or humanitarian law violations? How might this compromise aid delivery over the longer-term? Which criteria are relevant for assessing the associated risk?
  • How do rules-based approaches (ground rules, codes of conduct, rules of engagement and strategic frameworks) handle human rights issues? Are these mechanisms useful as information exchanges on the human rights situation and are they capable of discussing/addressing abuses with warring factions?

ECHO is taking the first step to better understand the inter-relationship between human rights and humanitarian aid. It is aware that this has to be part of a permanent, on-going process of learning from experience. ECHO’s learning will initially build on the work already done by many of its partner NGOs and other inter-governmental institutions. The result over time should be a transformative integration of human rights concerns throughout ECHO’s work which will increase its overall effectiveness and help it to identify the real dilemmas.


[1] Karen Kenny, The Human Rights Framework for Humanitarian Aid: Why we need strategies to develop it, paper submitted to ECHO meeting with partners, 9 December 1998.

For more information, contact:
Camilla Brücknuer
ECHO’s Strategy and Policy Planning Unit


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