Issue 19 - Article 16

Reflections on the Humanitarian Charter

June 2, 2003
Sean Lowrie
8 min read

The Humanitarian Charter is the fundamental analytical framework on which the rest of the Sphere handbook rests. Yet it is little understood, both from an individual perspective (what skills are needed to use it in the field?), and from an organisational perspective (what level of priority should an organisation give to the Charter?). The Charter expresses agencies’ commitment to promoting humanitarian principles, and to measuring the results of their actions. It is unique in that it combines human-rights law, international humanitarian law, refugee law and humanitarian principles. The Charter states that organisations will act in accordance with the principles of humanity and impartiality (and the other principles in the Code of Conduct), and reaffirms the humanitarian imperative: that all possible steps should be taken to alleviate human suffering. The Charter also outlines three key principles: the right to life with dignity; the distinction between combatants and non-combatants; and the principle of non-refoulement.

Principle 1: The right to life with dignity

Life with dignity is a powerful and important principle for the humanitarian system. This principle stems from international human-rights law. Yet there is an element of self-definition in the concept of dignity: everyone has their own, personal understanding of what it means. People need to participate if they are to define a programme that allows them to enjoy their right to life with dignity. This principle is given practical expression throughout the Sphere handbook in the form of participation indicators for each Minimum Standard (in water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter and site planning and health services).

Principle 2: The distinction between combatants and non-combatants

The second principle is drawn from the Geneva Conventions (common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and article 48 of the Additional Protocol I of 1977). This principle reinforces that civilians have a right to protection and assistance.

Principle 3: The principle of non-refoulement

The principle of non-refoulement – that refugees will not be sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be at risk – is the cornerstone of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore the starting-point for humanitarian agencies in promoting refugee rights.

The training module on the Charter emphasises that its three principles are relational: every right imposes a duty. These duties can be broken down into the duty to respect rights (not to violate them by, for example, forbidding children from going to school); to protect rights (for example, protecting the right of people with minority viewpoints to express these views); and to fulfil rights (for example, by ensuring that all children have access to education, or creating the conditions in which people can express themselves).

As well as principles, the Humanitarian Charter also makes a commitment to accountability. It recognises that people’s needs are met first and foremost through their own efforts, and that international law states that governments are responsible where local capacities are inadequate. Humanitarian agencies define their roles in relation to these primary ones, in essence filling the gaps to help people in a disaster achieve their rights. The Charter clarifies that humanitarian agencies are fundamentally accountable to the people they seek to serve.

Negotiating humanitarianism

Whether we realise it or not, the definition of humanitarianism is being negotiated continuously, all around the world – at every roadblock and in every project negotiation with a donor, in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan or in talks over access in northern Sierra Leone.

In this context, the Charter seeks to define a comprehensive framework for disaster response, with a focus on ethics, values and principles. It is perhaps at the ethical level that the actors in the humanitarian system will overcome their philosophical differences and find common ground. If there is a responsibility to become involved in a disaster when states fail to live up to their obligations, then the corresponding obligation for humanitarians is to strive to improve the quality of their work. The Humanitarian Charter will improve quality at a macro level, because it will oblige us to reflect on, defend and promote our common principles.

The implications for agencies

What are the implications for organisations if they apply the Humanitarian Charter? The training module proposes that, at an organisational level, the Humanitarian Charter can play a useful role in decision-making, and can act as a vehicle for thinking about additional activities which could complement and enhance service delivery in disasters. This may call for different skills, or for partnerships with other agencies possessed of different experience or mandates. For example, organisations may consider the following activities:

  • doing advocacy for increased international attention;
  • witnessing and reporting rights violations;
  • ensuring the ‘responsibilisation’ of duty holders (this is an ICRC term, and implies reminding duty-holders of their mandates and responsi-bilities, and helping them to fulfil them);
  • working to protect the rights of a population;
  • undertaking education on principles and rights;
  • ensuring the systematic participation of beneficiaries at all levels of operation;
  • making a commitment to use the Minimum Standards; and
  • making sure that impact indicators are used transparently.

It is imperative that humanitarian workers understand that humanitarian action is about managing dilemmas, and that working out the best available solution means using a combination of tools, including personal ethical frameworks and organisational policies. Both can be informed by the Humanitarian Charter. To demonstrate this, the training module uses debating, case studies and role plays to encourage aid workers to explore some of the dilemmas most commonly found in aid work.

  • How can long-term goals be consistent with the ‘humanitarian imperative’?
  • Will neutrality or impartiality be sacrificed if organisations adopt a ‘rights-based’ approach to humanitarianism?
  • Is it realistic to expect the participation of disaster-affected populations?
  • How can we avoid contributing to war economies, and still help people in danger?

It is the rationale behind the decision, and the transparency with which the decision is made, that is important. As long as the decision defends humanitarian principles, or is justified by them, it would be hard to view it retrospectively as inten-tionally causing harm to those affected by a disaster. The Humanitarian Charter does not dictate to any organisation what decisions to make. It does, however, imply that agencies need to reflect on the values, ethics and principles that they bring to bear. This is the main message of the training module.

The decision-making environment for humanitarian action is one of high risk, and finding space to reflect on the rationale behind the decisions we take is sometimes difficult. There are practical ways to make the space for this reflection, including creating a focal-point person within an organi-sation who could take responsibility for promoting debate on the Humanitarian Charter. The most effective approach has been to put the subject on meeting agendas in an ad hoc way, or to raise awareness of the Charter through individual mentoring. The questions to ask include:

  • Do we have a mission statement?
  • What international legal instruments inform that mission statement?
  • What humanitarian principles do we subscribe to?
  • What are our policies on decision-making?
  • How do we support field staff in making decisions?
  • How do we review our decisions and learn lessons for the future?

Politics and principles

Several recent studies, including a conference organised by the ODI in February 2001, have analysed the political, bureaucratic and economic influences on humanitarianism. These studies give examples of contexts where humanitarian principles have been weakened because of the weight of international politics, as in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq. A common theme is that humanitarian space is shrinking. An awareness of the need to defend humanitarian principles (which many organisations feel that they are regularly engaged with) might contribute to a solution. If our principles are to be defended, then we need the widespread dissemination of non-negotiable positions, such as the impartial, non-political nature of humanitarian action. Perhaps the Humanitarian Charter can facilitate this process, and thereby contribute to better negotiation for humanitarian space.

Ultimately, we don’t know if the Humanitarian Charter will help to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance. We do believe that it can help, and hope it will. Its strength is in assisting us to think through our own ethics and values, and how to use those values in managing operational dilemmas. Individuals in many countries are trying to learn more about improving quality. The Humanitarian Charter and its training module may offer one tool to achieve this.

field reports

Sean Lowrie is the Training Manager of the Sphere Project.

Over the past two years, many people have contributed ideas to the Humanitarian Charter training module, in particular Emma Jowett, independent consultant; Paul O”Brien of CARE; Nan Buzard, Sphere; and Ed Schenkenberg, ICVA. A draft of the training module is available free of charge at the Sphere website,


Sphere, and wider questions to do with quality and accountability, were reviewed in Humanitarian Exchange 17(pdf), October 2001.

For a summary of the ODI conference in February 2001, see Devon Curtis, Politics and Humanitarian Aid: Debates, Dilemmas and Dissension, Humanitarian Policy Group Report 10(London: Overseas Development Institute, 2001)

The Groupe URD,

The Humanitarian Accountability Project,

The Dangers and Incoherence of Standardisation and Normatisation of Humanitarian Aid mimeo, Groupe URD, 1999

ETIKMA, report of the International Conference on Norms and Codes of Conduct in Humanitarian Aid, Bioforce, Paris-Sorbonne; 2000, Lyon ‘Faut-Il Normaliser l”Aide Humanitaire?’, Revue Humanitaire, no. 1, November 2000


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