by Marta d’Agosto, Italy  

When Dept. Secretary General Jan Eliasson gave the keynote speech at the 2014 Bologna IPSI Symposium, the students asked him, “What shall we take into account when working in the humanitarian world in mediation and negotiation?”14614613907_9163387f40_k

His answer was, “diminish and reduce the gap with all inequalities, see the world as it should be.” He stressed the importance of the Rights-Up Front Initiative Inter Agency Standing Committee document. At the same time, he highlighted the importance of strengthening international organizations in order to improve their performance.

Following Amb. Jan Elliason, the link between human rights and peace has become a recurring theme during the 2014 IPSI Bolgona Symposium. During a student-speaker dinner with Alvaro de Soto these issues arose again when we spoke about the relevance of involving all parties to the conflict in peace-building dialogue, stressing the key nature of their involvement for successful outcomes, and, in any humanitarian situation, conducting assessment and planning according to needs is mandatory. Joyce Neu and Search for Common Ground’s Susan Collin-Marks and John Marks also discussed their interpretation of peace and human rights

For me, it is a fundamental issue. First of all, let’s talk about the applicable concept of a Protection and Human Rights-based approach, not only to where peace-building actions are pursued, but in all situations where humanitarian organizations are working. If based on legal principles, a human rights-based approach is not equivalent/referring only to a legalistic approach. It has a broader meaning beyond the division (or a choice) between peace and justice.  On the contrary, it is a way to play a role in the humanitarian field as a humanitarian actor whilst taking into account some important criteria as a guide to effectively protect humanitarian actions and strategies. The approach is embodied in the concept of protection: “All activities aimed at ensuring respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of relevant bodies of law, including international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law.”

Listening to some speakers, I couldn’t help but be concerned about the message that some organizations are in charge of human rights related issues whilst peace-makers pursue a different task. The message is that there is a tension between human rights organizations and peacemakers, that we need each other but we have different positions. So, I think it’s important to say something about the centrality of protection and the rights-based approach to any intervention we may take as an international community and in any field of operation.

Effective humanitarian projects follow the “risk equation”:

  • increase national authorities’ commitment and capacities to protecting people in the short, medium, and long term.
  • increase affected communities’ capacities to reduce their threats and vulnerabilities.
  • reduce protection threats, i.e. the impact of actors, institutions, and policies on people’s rights.
  • reduce vulnerabilities resulting from factors such ethnicity, gender, age and disability.

Projects should also include other considerations. For instance, in the “egg-model” humanitarian protection can address risks of abuse, act on underlying causes of violations, and/or address the consequences of abuse for survivors. This means that any action should aim to prevent or respond to a violation but also assess to what extent the project may contribute to remedial action and environment building.

The problem is that many humanitarian organisations do not apply arights-basedd approach to humanitarian action. That is, while they identify humanitarian needs and design humanitarian projects that respond to the population, they don’t analyse the underlying protection risks and the impact of their projects on these risks in short, medium, and long term. As a result, humanitarian projects may “do harm” by failing to address the preexistingt issues and exacerbating protection risks.


This is why Amb. Jan Eliasson stressed the importance of the “Rights up Front” Plan of Action (November 2013). The plan emphasises the imperative for the United Nations (and non-UN actors) to protect people, wherever they may be, in accordance with their human rights and in a manner that prevents and responds to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The principle of the “centrality of protection” means that humanitarian agencies must apply a rights-based rather than a needs-based approach to humanitarian assistance i.e. analyzing/addressing the root causes of human rights violations rather than simply responding to the immediate results thereof. Mediators, facilitators, and negotiators are not excluded from this approach and should take it into account during their work.