Resiliency, not rights

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SPHERE_handbook.pngAt a recent training on hygiene promotion in emergencies, we reviewed the SPHERE standards that set baselines for conditions in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.  In particular, we focused on SPHERE's choice of a rights-based approach to humanitarian relief.  The first principle of humanitarian relief is the right to life with dignity.

In general, I am not a supporter of rights-based approaches to any aspect of existence if the right does not have a reliable enforcement mechanism.  If rights cannot be enforced, then they are empty gestures. 

In addition, rights are rigid.  By casting certain problems in terms of rights, the potential for negotiated, flexible solutions are reduced.  Rights cannot be compromised; but, of course, comprise is the only reasonable solution to many intractable problems.

Moreover, having a right with no means of enforcement doesn't improve the life of the rights holder.  On the contrary, it may reduce the right holder's resiliency.  Fixating on rights can make a rights holder as rigid and inflexible as the right itself.  But a resilient person is not inflexible: he or she is able to get his or her needs met, irrespective of rights or the unfairness of their denial.

These general objections seem particularly forceful in the specific situation of humanitarian relief.  According to the SPHERE standards, for example, in order to enable a person to realize his or her right to life with dignity, humanitarian responses must provide 15 liters of water per person, per day, for cleaning, washing and cooking, as well as 250g of bathing soap, per person, per month.  People must have access to toilets, and no more than 20 people must be sharing a particular toilet.

Without question, these minimum provisions are necessary to prevent the epidemic spread of disease in camps, a situation that not only visits tragedy on an already-traumatized population, but that also places the wider society at risk.  In my view, such a rationale is sufficient - and better - than a rights based approach for the same activities.

Under the rights based approach, humanitarian work is hamstrung.  In order for rights to be realized, and to embody an existence beyond rhetoric, an enforcement mechanism must exist.  But the SPHERE standards are voluntary, and an enforcement mechanism would be profoundly detrimental.  Liability for failure to follow the SPHERE standards would create too high a disincentive for humanitarian agencies. 

Similarly, rights cannot be compromised.  But the SPHERE standards must often be compromised because conditions in refugee and IDP camps are variable and typically dismal.  Supply lines, for example, may be so severely impaired that soap or other necessaries cannot be transported to the camp.  In that event, have humanitarians violated the right to life with dignity of the camp's occupants?

Finally, a rights based approach seems likely to undermine the resiliency of the afflicted population.  As this briefest sampling of the SPHERE standards shows, the vast majority of the world's people would be better off inside camps than outside.  Under such conditions, what motivation does a camp occupant have to recover from trauma and return to everyday life?

Rights, in my view, are beside the point.  Resiliency is what allows emergency-stricken individuals to rejuvenate and return to a state in which they are contributing to their communities and to society.  A humanitarian response that supports the resiliency of the members of the afflicted community by reducing the incidence of disease in camps is one that needs no further justification.

Certainly, a right to life with dignity is a beautiful concept.  But that none of us is safe while any of us is in danger is an unavoidable fact.

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on March 13, 2010 11:57 PM.

An OBE for James Willson was the previous entry in this blog.

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