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Protecting the Vulnerable

by Oxfam | July 7, 2011

At a news conference last week, I told reporters about choosing where to place latrines so that they are safe and accessible in camps for displaced people. The occasion was the launch of a new edition of the Sphere Project handbook, the “bible” of humanitarian agencies since 2000, and a unique effort at voluntary accountability.

The handbook sets out minimum standards for disaster relief, which Oxfam and hundreds of other agencies have pledged to achieve. Things like: how much clean water per person per day, how many latrines per person, how far water sources should be located from shelters, and a host of other technical standards derived from the best practices of humanitarian agencies.

Along with the standards, the book lists principles we pledge to uphold, codified in a Humanitarian Charter, based on international human rights and humanitarian law – most importantly the right to life with dignity, the right to receive humanitarian assistance, and the right to protection and security.

I spoke about safety and accessibility because what is new in the new edition of the handbook is a chapter on “protection,” a side of our work people don’t normally think about. Not only must we provide goods and services to lessen the suffering of people made vulnerable by natural disasters or armed conflict (“assistance”); we must also protect their safety, their dignity and their rights under international law.

Here are the four new “protection principles” in the charter:

  • Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions. So in Darfur, where women are routinely raped collecting firewood outside the camps, we provide cooked rations or alternative fuel. Or in Haiti, where women are vulnerable to sexual assault, we place latrines and water spouts centrally and light them properly to make them safe to use.
  • Ensure people’s access to impartial assistance, based solely on need. We go out of our way to find the most vulnerable: disabled people, the elderly, ethnic or religious minorities. In Haiti, where so many lost legs in the earthquake, we built latrines designed for use by disabled people.
  • Protect people from physical and psychological harm due to violence and coercion. Of course, peacekeepers and police do the bulk of this work, but we too must do our part. Sometimes it means interceding with such authorities; other times, it means being present as a deterrent in a camp or on roads or in villages threatened with military attack.
  • Assist with rights, claims, access to remedies and recovery from abuse. When people are denied their right to assistance or to return to their homes, we have an obligation to speak out on their behalf. We issue regular reports on violations of rights in many conflicts to draw the attention of authorities and try to achieve some remedy.

The addition of protection principles to the Humanitarian Charter will raise the priority accorded this essential work, already being done by the larger agencies like Oxfam. Our hope is that newer and smaller agencies will now take it on, and that donor governments that rarely fund such work will acknowledge its importance.

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