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Humanitarian and Human Rights Work: Two Sides of the Same Coin


Dr. Arancha Garcia del Soto (second from left) with the Reiff Center team
Dr. Arancha Garcia del Soto (second from left) with the Reiff Center team

The art of listening is often lost in our modern world of hustle and bustle, but I find that it is the most critical skill in working towards solving human rights issues worldwide. Dr. Arancha Garcia Del Soto of Fordham University came to Christopher Newport University to discuss the importance of listening and the tensions between human rights workers and humanitarian efforts. I, at first, found this to be a strange topic because one would assume that human rights and humanitarian work would go hand in hand, yet the opposite can sometimes be true.

Dr. Arancha brings up three tensions that plague the efforts to end human rights violations globally. The first is the tension between the academics and hands-on humanitarians. These two groups will often lead to different solutions on solving human rights issues. The battlefield of human rights is full of nuance and difficulties, and human rights theorists often fight for justice, but forget the needs of the victims. Conversely, humanitarians deliver programs, but forget the causes. Obviously, there is a disconnect. The second tension is found in between the various academic disciplines such as law, anthropology, sociology, political science, etc. I find this tension interesting, because it shows us how people with opposing backgrounds will create completely different answers. Lastly, Dr. Arancha presents the omnipresent issue of culture, as western beliefs often contradict the practices in the cultures that we deem as violators. She states that this is where everyone must listen in order to understand the greater good that can be done in each culture that desperately needs help.

After her discussion of the tensions in human rights work, Dr. Arancha (thankfully) outlined the differences between Humanitarian work and Human Rights workers.

Dr. Arancha Garcia del Soto
Dr. Arancha Garcia del Soto

The first piece of humanitarians is the “emergency” responders who are sent after a tragedy and their only goal is to save lives. These people do not invest in the culture and are constantly moving from one disaster to the next. The second group is the developers, who are sent on long term missions to alleviate suffering; they bring programs such as sanitation, nutrition, and shelter. Both of these groups are based on the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The principles allow them to deliver programs to those in need – anyone in need – also described as the “Humanitarian Imperative.” Humanitarians are critical in saving lives and helping societies get back on their feet, without them the world would be a much darker place.

Human Rights workers develop the theories that can eventually be applied to the situations of human rights violations. This is important because behind every humanitarian mission is a human rights violation. I believe that the people who work human rights are also critical to the mission, even though they do not always deliver direct help to those in need. These people develop the laws, treaties, conventions, trials, and tactics that will work to end human rights violations. We must always remember that the purpose of our work is for humanity to be preserved and protected, and the effort that human rights workers put in is invaluable for that goal.

People take part in a "cacerolazo" (a form of civilian protest where pots are used to make noise) against the government in Colombia. (AFP Photo/Luis Robayo)
People take part in a “cacerolazo” (a form of civilian protest where pots are used to make noise) against the government in Colombia. (AFP Photo/Luis Robayo)

In order to demonstrate her points, Dr. Arancha presented two case studies, both of which I found eye opening and important to understanding. The first of these was Colombia, where a group of indigenous peoples were forced from their land by two major corporations. War torn and fractioned Colombia has one of the world’s largest displaced populations, and the indigenous peoples bear a disproportionate percentage of the problem. Due to this, the indigenous populations must fight to keep their homelands, like with the so-called “Indigenous Army.” At first, I was concerned as Dr. Arancha showed a picture of a native armed with only a pointed stick, but this is not your traditional army. These natives network worldwide to bring in foreign assistance to their cause; lawyers, mobilizers, humanitarians, and others all pour in to bring their expertise to the issues at hand. With the foreigners help, the indigenous peoples have made strides in their fight for human rights! Moreover, the peace talks and tentative upcoming elections have brought hope to the displaced natives in Colombia. After years of war and darkness and lawlessness, there is for once hope.

The second story was of the occupied Western Saharah. After the Spanish Monarchy pulled out of the region in 1975, Morocco decided that the Western Saharah would be its newest acquisition. Conversely, the people living in the region called for self-determination, as allotted to them by the UN. The resulting war has lasted decades and the repressive measures of the Moroccan government are harsh. The illegal occupation of the Western Saharah and its warring factions has been at a stalemate for 30 years, but this past year something different has happened. A group of human rights workers discovered a mass grave after interviewing several of the Saharan citizens. This mass grave held the bodies of Saharans from years ago, some of which still had Spanish IDs, proving the human rights violations of the Moroccan government, which before was shaky. After human rights workers broke several laws and exhumed the dead, there is legal standing for the Spanish government to take Morocco to court at the UN over the violations. While the future is still unsure, there is a new hope and a new healing for many of the people who live in the occupied territories. The finding of truth has healed the broken hearts of so many.

Protesting UN inaction to violence in the occupied territories of Western Sahara (photo: Kirby Gookin)
Protesting UN inaction to violence in the occupied territories of Western Sahara (photo: Kirby Gookin)

These case studies demonstrate how humanitarian work is critical to bringing about change in a society, such as those in Colombia who are training the Indigenous Army. Moreover, in Saharah it was the human rights workers who bravely risked their lives to release the truth of the Moroccan politicide. Both parties are so important to helping people around the world, but their skills may be needed for different events at different times.

Human Rights workers focus on justice and truth, creating the paradigm of a court room with victims and perpetrators. These values do not coincide with the humanitarians who wish to give help to all of those in need. I know these opposing forces have much to learn from one another, but for now they are sometimes in each other’s way.

What is most important to remember is human rights workers and humanitarians must always focus on the people who are suffering from human rights violations. Dr. Arancha said it best as the people who are suffering “have so much to teach us” and you will find “real humanity” with them. The path is long and treacherous to solving many of the world’s human rights violations. Human rights workers and humanitarians must come together to solve the many wounds damaging our world, and if they are willing to listen to each other and the people they are trying to help, there is still hope. And hope will see us through.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.