Interview with Iain Levine

Humanitarian Voices Interview with Iain Levine, Program Director for Human Rights Watch. Iain Levine has worked both in the field of human rights and in humanitarian aid. In the mid 1980s and 1990s, he worked for Save the Children and UNICEF in North and South Sudan and in Mozambique. His experience has given him a valuable perspective on how the human rights and humanitarian communities can work together to better protect vulnerable populations facing humanitarian crises.

Question: Specifically, how does the defense of human rights contribute to humanitarian work?

Iain Levine: I think that both fields are very connected. The effectiveness of humanitarian aid is severely limited in highly repressive countries where human rights are violated, where freedom of expression and movement are restricted. We saw this two years ago with the Burmese military’s actions in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis: The country’s military government prevented both foreign disaster relief workers and urgently needed relief supplies from entering the delta during the crucial first weeks after the cyclone. And although there have been improvements since then, restrictions on access remain in place. We have just issued a report that looks back on Cyclone Nargis and the humanitarian response. Amongst our recommendations, we call on the Burmese government to release aid workers who were imprisoned for speaking out on the needs of the population, and we highlight the fact that respect for human rights is essential for effective humanitarian assistance.

Also, in crises that generate large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, we are continuously looking at the issue of protection for these populations and asking whether more can be done, particularly for the most vulnerable groups such as women and children.

Q: Do the human rights and the humanitarian communities work together on these issues?

IL: When I began working in this field in the mid-1980s, the humanitarian and the human rights community were very far apart and distinct from one other. They had no language in common, they felt no need to work together. You could even say that there was a degree of tension between the two fields. All that changed in the 1990s, with the wars in Somalia and the Balkans, and the genocide in Rwanda. These were human rights crises that generated humanitarian crises. In Rwanda, a grave human rights situation had an immediate humanitarian impact: 800,000 people fled to the Congo. These were dramatic changes, which made the human rights and the humanitarian communities recognize their common concerns and acknowledge the need to work together towards providing effective protection for at-risk populations.

Q: How has that change come about?

IL: In the past decade or so, there has been a wider recognition that humanitarian action has to involve both assistance and protection for affected populations. Previously, the humanitarian community focused primarily on providing goods and services like food, water, shelter or sanitation. Now, humanitarian work also looks at issues such as protecting children from recruitment in conflicts, or protecting women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence. Also important is the growing recognition by humanitarian actors that if humanitarian action is to be truly accountable and include full participation by beneficiaries, their rights to freedom of expression and association must be respected. If communities are to determine their own needs, they must have the freedom to express them.

It would be important for the humanitarian community to include human rights organisations in some of the fora where donors and organisations discuss the Good Humanitarian Donorship principles. I believe that the human rights community can provide a useful assessment on how humanitarian aid can incorporate human rights more successfully and ultimately be more effective as a result.

Q: When looking at situations where human rights violations are taking place in the context of humanitarian crises, what areas of the world are you most concerned about?

IL: That is a very difficult choice, because there are so many places where this is happening. I could talk about Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan amongst many other countries. But the Democratic Republic of the Congo presents perhaps one of the gravest situations. We have documented so many kinds of human rights abuses by all parties – killings of civilians, sexual violence, forced displacement, recruitment of children. Although the UN peacekeeping forces seek to provide protection for civilian populations, it is also essential that the humanitarian community find ways to address the issue of protection in a much more sustained way. And as they fund humanitarian programmes, donor countries need to use their leverage with the Congolese government to push for measures to enforce protection for the population, and at the same time push for investigations into allegations of abuse and prosecution of those responsible. Donors must push all warring parties to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, and to pursue justice and accountability.

Donors should also stress that humanitarian actors cannot be silent witnesses to human rights violations and encourage agencies to pass on information in ways that protect the security of humanitarian staff and allow them to maintain their ability to access and support populations in need.

Q: In the context of a natural disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti, what are Human Rights Watch’s main concerns with regard to human rights?

IL: Again, the main issue is protection for the most vulnerable populations. In Haiti’s case, the earthquake generated massive destruction of property, homelessness and overcrowding, as well as the breakdown of essential services; these are situations that expose people to dangers such as sexual violence. In the context of natural disasters, human rights concerns tend to be less prominent. Of course, we also understood that the devastation was tremendous, and that UN personnel, including human rights monitors, had been killed. The existence of a protection cluster alongside clusters for health, housing, water and sanitation, nutrition and so on, did help ensure that protection responses were integrated into the humanitarian response.

Q: Do donor countries tend to shy away from addressing human rights concerns with governments facing a humanitarian crisis?

IL: Absolutely, that is a generalized problem. Donor countries usually seem reluctant to address these issues because they do not want to damage their relationships with these governments, with whom they may share all sorts of political as well as humanitarian interests. That is a reality. But Human Rights Watch continues to share our findings and engage with donor governments to urge them to recognize that they have a critical role to play in advocating the respect for fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law.

And while we have made much progress in advancing the integration of human rights and humanitarian concerns in the 25 years that I have been working on these issues, we still have a significant way to go.