Protecting the Future: Professional Standards in Humanitarian and Human Rights Work
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
I’m pleased to be a part of this event. I am, and my colleagues at State Department’s bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) are, keenly aware of the State Department’s role in providing protection to refugees, displaced people and other victims of conflict. We also support many other organizations that strive to do this, so these Standards are highly relevant to our work.
In recent years, humanitarians have increasingly sought not only to assist people affected by conflicts and natural disasters, but also to protect them. Humanitarians define protection as activities undertaken to obtain full respect for the rights of the individual. By “rights” I mean basic human rights and rights conferred by humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these activities are focused on improving physical security and well-being. But humanitarians use the term to mean much more than that. It can be steps to prevent or put a stop to abuse. Other preventive measures provide a more secure environment or help for victims.
It rarely means providing a bodyguard or guaranteeing complete protection. And in her book The Politics of Protection, Elizabeth Ferris examined inconsistent ways in which protection is defined and applied. So we must always strive to do better. In Fiscal Year 2012, nearly 54 percent of PRM funding went to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in support of their mandates to assist and protect the most vulnerable. We also seek to ensure that our grants to non-governmental organizations also are used for programs that protect the beneficiaries.
ICRC’s principled work extends back to its founding 150 years ago. Like UNHCR, its mandate dates back to the post-World War II era when the Geneva Conventions and Refugee Convention were adopted. It is only in the last decade or so that a significant number of other humanitarian and human rights organizations have identified protection as part of their work. As the Standards note: “The multi-faceted nature of crises typically demands a variety of solutions. The multiplicity of humanitarian and human rights protection actors and their diversity of approaches is thus an asset.” This is true just in the process of revising these “Professional Standards for Protection Work.” I want to commend ICRC for leading an inclusive process of consultation to produce these revised Standards.
These Standards are increasingly important as the number of humanitarian organizations grows and multiplies. Especially in complex emergencies – like those we are responding to in Syria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere – where the challenges are daunting even with the myriad groups that are responding on the ground, it is crucial that humanitarians operate according to universal principles and standards. I am impressed by both the breadth and depth of these revised Standards. They address basic concepts, like “do no harm,” as well as the nuances of emerging technologies, such as the use of crowd sourcing and satellite imagery to gather information. I am also encouraged by the points of intersection the Standards illuminate between humanitarian and human rights work while analyzing the different work that humanitarian and human rights agencies do.
For example, while they require respect for the humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence, the Standards also recognize that not all assistance organizations adhere to these principles as part of their mission. Being a part of the U.S. Government, PRM cannot be a neutral actor, but we take as part of our mission the imperative to promote respect for the neutrality of our humanitarian partners, like ICRC.
Finally, I want to note my appreciation for the Standards’ attention to the importance of professional capacity. It is true but often under-recognized that “Protection work is staff intensive.” Our work requires expertise, it requires field presence, it requires logistical and financial support and especially safety for staff operating in areas affected by conflict. The people who seek to rescue those who have been threatened, attacked and traumatized are true heroes, and these Standards will undoubtedly strengthen their life-saving work.