We all use the phrase human rights….But do we really understand the nature of human rights claims, and the basis on which they are founded?” James Darcy, writing in his personal capacity for the Relief and Rehabilitation Network, is Emergencies Coordinator for Asia for Oxfam UK, as well as being a UK-qualified lawyer.

The concept of human rights is increasingly being invoked in the context of humanitarian; yet the moral and legal basis for the claims involved are often little understood.  This paper aims to describe the basic moral and legal framework of human rights; to look at issues of responsibility, protection and enforcement in the light of international legal obligations; and to relate this to the work of humanitarian agencies in their attempts to provide assistance and protection to communities affected by conflict and other disasters.

The legal framework involves a sometimes confusing patchwork of provisions from different branches of international law: human rights law, humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions), and refugee law.  The key features of these provisions, and the way they relate to each other, are explored in this paper.  More specifically, the particular role and mandate of the ICRC and UNHCR are examined in the context of a discussion of humanitarian law and refugee law respectively.  From that follows a general discussion of protection and assistance activities, the relationship between them, and the tensions and potential dilemmas that arise in seeking to combine human rights advocacy with relief assistance.

The basic thesis is that humanitarian actions – assistance and protection – are properly seen as part of a spectrum of human rights activity; in other words, it is an argument for the recognition of humanitarian rights in the broader sense, including but not limited to relief.  The paper concludes with a number of recommendations, including a call to make an assessment of protection needs part of every needs assessment, and to calculate and minimise the potential negative side-effects of relief interventions.


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