Humanitarian Action: when needs are human rights

In mid-1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced a series of reforms, including a mandate that human rights be integrated more fully, or "mainstreamed," into the work of the UN system. This study reviews the uptake on that mandate by four humanitarian organizations (UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP, and WFP) and four secretariat units (DPA, DPKO, OCHA, and OHCHR). It finds considerable unevenness in the interpretation of the mandate and in its implementation in the policy and operations of these entities.

The UN system is encouraged to develop a strategy for the system-wide integration of human rights, with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights playing an expanded leadership role and interagency mechanisms (the Executive Committees and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee) more fully engaged.

When Needs are Rights: An Overview of UN Efforts to integrate Human Rights in Humanitarian Action provides a standard-setting template for reviewing the integration of human rights in diverse areas, including peacekeeping. The research focus is on eight major UN actors in humanitarian response and it reports on their progress towards the integration of human rights in humanitarian action. The template was applied through headquarters interviews with officials from the eight actors. The results demonstrate the need for both coherent vision and leadership to ensure that the full integration of human rights in the UN system is transformative, and not merely an ‘add-on’ to existing means of work. This study is a collaboration with The Humanitarianism and War Project of the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Text is also available from: as Occasional Paper number 38.

Humanitarian Action: A Transatlantic Agenda for Operations and Research outlines discussion from a heterogenous group of 28 persons, consisting of programme operators and researchers, emergency relief and human rights experts, and North American and Europeans. The chapter concerning human rights is contributed by Karen Kenny, editors are Larry Minear and Thomas G Weiss. The collection is Occasional Paper No. 29 of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Brown University.