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Beyond the Sphere standards

By Bikram Jeet Batra

There are international guidelines for emergency relief measures, such as the Sphere standards. But there are no internationally-accepted guidelines for longer-term resettlement and rehabilitation. This often leads to what one disaster expert calls paternalistic programmes that end up serving the needs of the donors and agencies rather than the victims

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 directly affected the lives of over a million people and was followed by an unprecedented response in terms of aid and assistance, involving many government, inter-government and non-government agencies. While some of these organisations claim to adhere to an agreement on minimum standards, or key principles, there were reports of caste-based discrimination in access to aid, restrictions on movement of people in camps, and forcible resettlement of people who were chased away from the camps. Past and recent experiences also suggest that women are at particular risk of exploitation within camps.

Yet in all the chaos, agencies that initially responded with relief and aid were able to draw upon the Sphere guidelines ( But when the emergency phase drew to a close, making way to the longer-term resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) phase, there was little to rely on in terms of a rights-based approach as, unlike the relief sector, the R&R sector does not even have an agreement on standards and operations. Nor does this appear to be a priority issue.

The lack of internationally accepted rights-based guidelines or standards for operations, evaluation, monitoring and accountability during the R&R phase often leads to what one disaster expert calls "programmes (that) inevitably become paternalistic in nature or end up serving the needs of the donors and the agencies rather than the needs of the victims" (World Disasters Report, 2002).

A number of observers studying the camps reported similar trends where a lack of understanding of rights led to a situation where affected persons not only felt indebted to the various aid and relief organisations but often unquestioningly accepted what was provided to them even if it was not completely relevant to their needs.

A minimum set of principles for operations takes into account existing tensions and vulnerabilities within communities and tries to ensure that assistance reaches the most vulnerable and does not perpetuate inequalities. Moreover, codes of conduct constitute an important tool for donor organisations as they ensure some accountability. Where affected persons are aware of the guidelines they can question the absence of standards. Such codes must therefore be seen as a move towards longer-term legislation with greater accountability and redress mechanisms.

Past initiatives in relief standards

Guidelines and principles for humanitarian relief and disaster aid have a distinct history going as far back as the Convention Establishing an International Relief Union in 1927. Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions refers to the need for humanity, impartiality and "absence of adverse distinction" in assisting civilian populations in armed conflicts. Over time, these humanitarian ideals were expanded to apply to agencies providing assistance after natural disasters and wars. In 1991, while setting up the department for humanitarian affairs, the United Nations laid down certain broad principles to guide humanitarian assistance. Aid agencies too had begun work on setting guidelines, though early suggestions leaned towards a broad pledge -- a sort of Hippocratic Oath -- for aid agencies. This was soon followed by the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. The code was later improved upon by the Sphere Project, an initiative of a number of NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. The aim of the project was to bring out an "operational framework for accountability in disaster assistance efforts". This was done through the Sphere Handbook in 2000, which adopted the Humanitarian Charter and identified minimum standards in key services.

In its fifth year, the Sphere Handbook now covers standards for water supply and sanitation, nutrition and food aid, shelter and health services. The 2004 version also includes an intersectional approach towards assistance, taking into account the special needs of vulnerable groups including women, children, older people, disabled people, people suffering from HIV/AIDS, and racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities. Environmental needs and standards have also been given due consideration in the 2004 version. Over 400 organisations are part of the Sphere project.

Limitations of existing relief standards and guidelines

While the Sphere project has a crucial role to play, it has clear limitations. This is largely due to the fact that while it relies on general humanitarian and human rights principles, it does not enunciate the details of the rights and remedies available to affected populations. The Humanitarian Charter rests on the fundamental importance of the right to live with dignity. The charter notes: "By adhering to the standards set out in chapters 1-5 we commit ourselves to make every effort to ensure that people affected by disasters have access to at least the minimum requirements (water, sanitation, food, nutrition, shelter and healthcare) to satisfy their basic right to life with dignity. To this end we will continue to advocate that governments and other parties meet their obligations under international human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law." This broad statement and the scant information on legal instruments in the annexes is all the information available in the handbook on the subject of international law obligations.

In all existing broad principles and guidelines that exist at present, there is little elaboration on what particular rights in international law they seek to uphold, respect and protect in their work. In effect, while well-meaning, these standards are only declaratory in nature and provide little in the form of real accountability and redress to affected persons.

The substance of international law requirements for R&R

Rights are often given a back seat and are seen as a luxury in both organisational and governmental responses to disasters. Thus, even where the response may be otherwise satisfactory it remains a matter of 'charity' rather than the 'right' of disaster survivors to receive assistance. Oxfam International reported that in Kanyakumari district, in India, not only did Oxfam adhere to the Sphere standards, but the district collector also agreed that all agencies providing shelter must work by the same Sphere standards. This is a first step: governments need to go beyond operational standards and recognise their broader obligations under international human rights law. Any guiding instrument must ensure that it not only reflects the highest operational standards, but it also lists clear obligations under international human rights law.

Human rights obligations may be found in a number of international instruments including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966. Both, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 provide the basic framework for survivors' rights. Also important are the Guiding Principles for Internally Displaced People developed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Besides these broad instruments there are also a large number of specific vulnerable group instruments that are useful in guiding and evaluating R&R efforts.

Assisting the "most vulnerable"

There is sufficient research on the impact of disasters on the poor and other vulnerable groups that suffer disproportionately in any such incident. Thus, many international instruments and declarations specifically highlight the need for particular attention to:

  • Women (Article 10, ICESCR 1966, CEDAW 1979)
  • Children (Article 12, ICESCR 1966, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989)
  • Disabled persons (Article 23, CRC 1989, Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, 1975, and Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, 1971)
  • Older persons (UN Principles for Older Persons, 1991, General Comment No 6: 'The economic, social and cultural rights of older persons', CESR 1996)
  • Religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities (Article 27, ICESCR 1966, Article 30, CRC 1989, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities 1992)
  • Indigenous people (ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries 1989 [Draft], UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and General Recommendation No XXIII on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, CERD 1997)

More recently, recognition has been accorded to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, non-nationals and migrants. Also, certain groups or individuals who suffer multiple forms/layers of discrimination. However, there is still some amount of confusion on who fits the term "vulnerable". The 2001 World Bank Policy on Resettlement (revised in 2004) recognises as vulnerable "those below the poverty line" and "the landless". The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998 makes particular mention of "female heads of household", as also "peasants, pastoralists and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to their lands". A 1995 paper by the Asian Development Bank on involuntary resettlement too makes specific note of "pastoralists who may have usufruct or customary rights to the land or other resources". ILO Guiding Principles (2005) mention "homeless, very poor households, women-headed households". The Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women refers to rural women as particularly disadvantaged. Still, many groups remain largely ignored.

Vulnerabilities also arise due to sometimes localised yet related disenfranchisements. Many people affected by the tsunami in Somalia were already displaced from areas of severe famine. People suffering descent-based discrimination in parts of India are being ignored by a rehabilitation policy largely based on ownership of property and land. Where the focus is on livelihoods, attention has been on fishing communities, ignoring landless workers who relied on tilling the now-salinated land for their income. Thus, the lack of a nuanced understanding of local socio-economic relations, division of labour and hierarchical set-ups within a community often contribute to irresponsible relief assistance in a post-disaster scenario.

Towards an R&R convention

While the R&R sector appears to be floundering in the absence of any standards and principles, the humanitarian relief sector has begun to recognise problems with the voluntary approach and work towards conventions and other binding instruments related to specific issues, for example the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations, 1998.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also launched the International Disaster Response Law Project in 2000 noting: "There is no definite, broadly accepted source of international law which spells out legal standards, procedures, rights and duties pertaining to disaster response and assistance... There are no universal rules that facilitate secure, effective international assistance, and many relief efforts have been hampered as a result."

A Unicef and International Social Service Paper, 'Care for Children in Emergency Situations: Implications for International Standards',in November 2004 (referring to children, post-disaster) makes the same argument: "There remains a need for standards which are endorsed by United Nations member states... Efforts to maximise their respect for standards would nonetheless be substantially bolstered by the existence of detailed rights-based guidelines covering all aspects of the question and approved at the highest international level. There is now an urgent need to draw up such a document."

Given the continuum between relief, resettlement and rehabilitation, any such document must also cover aspects of resettlement and rehabilitation. While some argue that the Sphere guidelines could eventually become customary international law, there remains the need for a comprehensive convention to cover all that's excluded from the Sphere standards.

Any convention will take time to develop. In the interim, despite their inherent problems, codes of conduct are valuable starting points for a targeted, accountable response. Organisations and agencies working in the R&R sector must take a leaf out of the humanitarian relief organisations' book and adopt voluntary codes based on agreed principles to regulate their work. It is extremely disturbing that while humanitarian aid organisations are moving towards developing a right to assistance itself, the R&R sector continues to ignore the rights of those it is assisting. A set of principles with clearly enunciated international human rights obligations is vital, to make all those involved -- governments, donors and organisations -- accountable. Similarly, beneficiaries of R&R will be empowered in their relationship with those offering them assistance and will become partners in the R&R work rather than simply the "affected people".

(Bikram Jeet Batra is a human rights lawyer and researcher based in Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008