You are here: Iain Levine on human rights and humanitarian action: complementary or contradictory?

In recent days, we have all been shocked by images from Homs in Syria where trapped residents have been reduced to eating grass and where civilians and aid workers were shelled by government forces as the UN tried to bring desperately needed aid.

Throughout the three-year conflict, the Syrian government has deliberately blocked humanitarian access and destroyed the health infrastructure as a deliberate strategy of war. 

While Syria is perhaps the most extreme example, almost every major humanitarian crisis in the world today is effectively the consequence of a human rights crisis characterized by attacks against civilians, ethnic cleansing, destruction of infrastructure, forced displacement, recruitment of children, sexual and gender-based violence and attacks on humanitarian workers contribute to massive population movements and millions of civilians in need of food, health care, shelter and protection.

Think South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, and Afghanistan to name but a few.

Since Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, human rights and humanitarian actors have increasingly recognized their shared responsibilities to protect and assist in such complex situations. Rampant insecurity and the often cynical political agendas of warring parties and their political allies add to the difficulties.

Though the extent of suffering and unmet need on the ground is often staggering and though the two communities are driven by different ways of working and, historically at least, different philosophical traditions, the complementarity of human rights and humanitarian agendas and the nexus of the values that drive them today is strong.

Every day, Human Rights Watch staff work alongside humanitarian partners in the field or advocate together at the UN, the EU, and with key governments for deployment of peacekeepers, better human rights monitoring, and access to all civilians in need. And within the UN system, the new “Rights up Front” initiative announced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, seeks to place human rights and the protection of civilians at the heart of the UN’s response to the gravest crisis situations.

Effective humanitarian action has to encompass both protection and assistance. While provision of food, health care, water and sanitation are essential elements of the humanitarian response, so are actions that provide physical protection, prevent sexual violence and deter the recruitment of children. And that will require contrasting approaches to warring parties – both co-operation to reach those in need and confrontation to demand an end to abuses.

There can never be silent witnesses to abuses against civilians. A medical agency providing treatment to women who have been raped by soldiers may well not be in a position to speak out against the violence that has created the medical need. But they must ensure that information is shared and that someone is able to work to address the underlying problem.

Impartiality and neutrality remain critical principles for both humanitarian action and human rights. Just as humanitarian actors must seek to provide assistance on all sides of a conflict regardless of political affiliation, so too must human rights actors aim to document and highlight the worst abuses committed by all sides to the conflict.  

In Syria and in other humanitarian crises, human rights and humanitarian actors are pushing the political actors on the UN Security Council to insist on and ensure unhindered humanitarian access in the face of unparalleled degree of humanitarian suffering. Deliberately blocking access to starve a population, for instance, constitutes a war crime.

Inevitably, there are differences between operational humanitarian agencies and human rights advocacy groups such as mine. For example, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on the importance of accountability. Many human rights advocates saw the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan by the International Criminal Court in 2009 (CK), as a step forward for international justice and accountability. For at least some humanitarian agencies – a number of whom were expelled by the Sudanese government in retaliation – the indictment was merely a symbolic action that failed to advance human right protections for Sudanese civilians.

But far more unites us than divides us. And we are far more effective actors when we find common ground and work together.  

Iain Levine is Deputy Executive Director for Program at Human Rights Watch. He has 30 years of human rights and humanitarian experience with the UN and NGOs. He tweets at @iainlevine.