UN stresses safeguarding human rights in humanitarian emergencies

Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang

15 July 2010 – United Nations human rights experts today called for ensuring that measures to protect the rights of people affected by humanitarian emergencies are integrated in all stages of the response effort.

“It is widely accepted that human rights considerations must be made an integral part of humanitarian responses,” Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said at an event held at UN Headquarters. “The issue is no longer whether there should be a human rights-based approach to relief, but rather how best to implement this approach.”

Today’s discussion, held in connection with the humanitarian affairs segment of the annual session of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), highlighted the need to keep in mind the needs of specific groups in vulnerable situations, especially women and children, drawing on lessons learned from the response to the 12 January earthquake in Haiti.

Ms. Kang noted that the various monitoring and technical cooperation mechanisms, collectively known as the special procedures, can contribute to the protection needs of populations in emergencies and post-crisis situations in a number of ways.

The special procedures consist of experts such as special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts or working groups who are entrusted by the UN Human Rights Council with examining, monitoring and publicly reporting on human rights situations in specific countries or on major rights issues, and do so in an independent and unpaid capacity.

The thematic work of the special procedures, Ms. Kang pointed out, can provide legal, policy and operational guidance for humanitarian actors to ensure the protection of the rights of people affected by emergencies.

They can also provide timely response and expertise on such issues as displacement, access to goods and services, housing, freedom of movement, missing persons, and the right to life. In addition, they can raise awareness about specific protection concerns and provide technical support during emergencies.

For example, mandate-holders on slavery, sale of children, trafficking, and violence against children played an important role in drawing attention to the increased risk faced by unaccompanied and separated children in Haiti to being abducted, enslaved, sold or trafficked due to increased insecurity following the earthquake.

Rashida Manjoo, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, said it is a well known fact that complex humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters have a differential impact on men and women.

“Women and children, particularly girls, often see their fundamental human rights, such as the right to physical integrity and to a life free from violence, directly threatened in humanitarian emergencies and in post-disaster situations,” she told the meeting.

“They are often at risk of sexual violence and exploitation, and their health needs – including access to sexual, reproductive and maternal health care services – are often overlooked and neglected.”

She said the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women has advocated for “gender-sensitive humanitarian assistance” which can help in mitigating the different and negative effects that complex emergencies and natural disasters have on men and women.

Human rights and humanitarian crises are indeed interrelated, said Michel Forst, the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti.

He noted that the devastating quake that struck Haiti not only exacted a massive toll in lives and livelihoods but also destroyed most government buildings, schools, hospitals, national heritage sites and churches.

When he visited the country in the immediate aftermath of the quake, he was able to see for himself how the two sets of rights – economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights – had been affected by the crisis.

“Indeed, the two sets of rights have been deeply affected,” he stated. A large part of the population in the affected areas had lost not only their houses and belongings but also their documents, including identification and voter cards, diplomas, property records, and birth and marriage certificates, and thus had also lost the chance to claim their civil and political rights.

“Human rights and humanitarian assistance are sometimes seen as two competing priorities, as if one could not see that the two are interconnected,” he stated.

“Past experiences have shown that in all humanitarian crises, human rights are at risk.”


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