Skip main navigation

A humanitarian charter and Sphere

Humanitarian charter
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

The document containing the Sphere standards is prefaced by reference to the humanitarian charter.

Underpinned by both International law and humanitarian principles, it provides the ethical and legal basis for the Sphere standards and is based around three ‘rights’:

  • The right to life with dignity
  • The right to protection and security
  • The right to humanitarian assistance

What do we mean by a ‘charter’, and what is its role or function?

A charter is a document issued by an authority body, to an institution which defines the purpose, obligations, regulations, rights and or privileges by which that institution can operate. It might also state certain immunities or exemptions. The award or declaration of a charter is a mechanism by which an institution is given a specific mission and authority to act on behalf of the ‘higher body’, together with some governance structures through which to act.

The humanitarian charter outlines stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities in humanitarian action. It specifies that an affected population has a central role through the process, and specifically in the initial stages, and that the state has primary responsibility to provide timely assistance and protect those affected. The charter specifies that when external agencies get involved they should commit to:

  • People-centred humanitarian assistance
  • Minimise adverse effects
  • Abide by the Code of Conduct
  • Be accountable

Well into the second decade since the charter and standards were agreed and documented, few would question its contribution to effectiveness and professionalism within the sector. The use of standards was a worthwhile endeavour to improve humanitarian practice, though sometimes can seem remote from beneficiaries who might not be even aware of its existence. Unfortunately, the successes of standards were to be undermined by multiple initiatives for designing standards. Also, the Sphere standards are not and cannot be enforceable and can sometimes prove, for a range of practical or political reasons, notoriously difficult for agencies to achieve during emergency operations.

Despite some shortcomings, among all the standards developed, Sphere has gained widespread use in humanitarian contexts. Evaluations of the humanitarian responses to the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods in 2010, identified that multiple overlapping operating frameworks and standards was limiting the effectiveness and interoperability of agencies.

Your task

Read the findings and recommendation of either the Haiti Earthquake or Pakistan Floods response evaluation report.
Can you identify three aspects of the response that appeared not to conform to humanitarian principles and Sphere core standards?
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now