How humanitarian standards help us spotlight minorities

01 December 2016 | Sphere Project

Rohingya minority in the Myanmar

Members of the Rohingya minority in the Rakhine State, Myanmar. Mobile clinics made available by humanitarian organizations are their best chance to access basic healthcare, as only few public health centres are open to them. Photo © Mathias Eick/EU-ECHO

By Christine Knudsen (*)

When disaster strikes, it is critical to pay special attention to the situation of those who may be disenfranchised, at heightened risk, and with fewer resources for protection and action.

I had the honour last week to present Sphere's work as a panelist at the Human Rights Council's 9th Forum on Minority Issues. It was a telling sign of the state of our world today that the session was focused for the first time on minorities in situations of humanitarian crisis.

As the number of people affected by disaster or conflict reaches new highs, minorities across the globe find themselves targeted for abuse and harassment, intentionally forced to flee and even killed as an aggressive strategy in conflicts.

Displacement in particular is often triggered by deep underlying and unresolved tensions between majority and minority groups, whether national, ethnic, religious or linguistic. In addition to that, the poor are disproportionately affected in natural disasters, and minorities are usually disproportionately poor, leading to compounded vulnerabilities.

And while there is a powerful framework of international humanitarian law, refugee law, and disaster law to protect and fulfil rights, we know that translating this into practice for all affected people is hard work in every crisis.

A fundamental shift

Sphere was launched by humanitarian practitioners in 1997 to think about this very problem. While initially a voluntary attempt to define common standards to promote quality and accountability within the humanitarian sector, it has always located this work within a wider legal, ethical and even moral framework.

At the time, Sphere represented a fundamental shift - away from a pure needs-based and charitable approach of giving help towards a rights-based approach based on solidarity and protection of human dignity even in the most challenging crisis environments.

Sphere is above all a statement of rights and duties. It seeks to give concrete meaning to the concepts of "right to life with dignity" and "right to humanitarian assistance". Establishing the content of these rights through jointly established standards allows a diverse community of practitioners to agree what quality humanitarian interventions look like. It allows us to be transparent and accountable.

Standards help us build predictability and strengthen coordination across a broad range of actors in government, NGO, even military and non-state actors. They help us think about needs assessment, programme design and evaluation in a shared way and make sure we are being as effective and timely as possible. They help us professionalise our work, build capacity, advocate with others and find common ground for action.

In short, standards help us translate principles and rights into practice and programmes.

Caring for those most in need

So what does this mean in practice and what does it mean for minorities?

In references supporting the Humanitarian Charter - the cornerstone of its standards - Sphere clearly emphasises the principle of non-discrimination, affirming universal rights and minorities' rights to enjoy their own culture, religion and language.

The Protection Principles note specific vulnerabilities of religious or ethnic minority groups. And there is a call to consider the specific risks of gender-based violence that women and girls belonging to minority groups may face.

Health standards specifically point up the need to ensure that staff represent the diversity of the population served, including recruiting staff from minority groups to improve access.

Food security and livelihoods standards note the need to ensure economic access to markets, including in situations where access may be restricted due to the political and security environment and/or cultural and religious considerations which could restrict minority access to these resources.

While this is far from exhaustive, the underlying humanitarian principle of impartiality - providing assistance on the basis of need alone - requires that humanitarian actors respond in ways that consider the specific needs of all people affected by a crisis as they determine priorities.

The exclusion of any group from humanitarian assistance - or unintentionally reinforcing obstacles to their access to such assistance - undermines this fundamental principle and contributes to discrimination rather than supporting recovery.

To advance humanitarian quality and accountability, non-discrimination and inclusion of all vulnerable groups - especially minority groups - is essential.

Sphere was established with two fundamental beliefs at its core: that all of those affected by crisis have a right to life with dignity and that all possible steps must be taken to alleviate suffering in these crises. This clearly is an inclusive approach which also recognises the specific vulnerabilities and capacities of minorities.

While Sphere gives practical guidance to help make this approach a reality on the ground, we know there is always more work to be done to improve humanitarian action.

The way ahead...

Sphere will be reviewing its standards next year. That conversation will involve thousands of humanitarian practitioners, government representatives, civil society organisations, and others to ensure that an integrated and inclusive approach emerges more strongly than ever. I invite each of you to join in and contribute your voice, experience, and recommendations.

Together we can build an ever more effective application of the principles, legal frameworks, evidence and good practice to improve the lives of those most in need.

(*) Sphere Director.

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