New edition of the Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response

By Dug Cubie

This week sees the formal launch of an updated and revised edition of the Sphere Project’s Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response (most commonly known as the “Sphere Handbook”). Simultaneous events are being held in over 20 countries around the world, including a launch in Dublin organised by Plan Ireland, on 14th April 2011.

Following the complex international humanitarian responses in the early 1990s to the conflicts in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia and particularly in Rwanda, non-Governmental organisations recognised Governments were increasingly examining the need to regulate humanitarian aid. This possibility of external regulation coincided with many NGOs’ own desire to promote performance and accountability for their actions, and led a coalition of humanitarian NGOs to propose the introduction of quality standards in relief activities.

The resulting Sphere Project aimed to produce a set of industry standards for the provision of humanitarian assistance, prefaced by a beneficiaries’ charter to highlight the rights of those facing a humanitarian crisis. The dual mandate to create both industry standards and consumer rights was controversial, with organisations like Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) concerned that minimum standards would be difficult to implement in practice, except in camp-like settings where humanitarian agencies were fully responsible for the provision of basic services. Nevertheless, the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response was first published in 2000 and elaborated core principles and technical standards applicable for all humanitarian agencies. Drawing on existing international law and a diverse range of guidelines, the Sphere Handbook provided the first comprehensive set of standards and indicators for the provision of humanitarian assistance. The Handbook was subsequently revised and updated in 2004, with the third edition now being launched.

The 2011 edition of the Handbook follows a similar format as previous editions, but includes a strengthened section on human rights protection and a re-written Humanitarian Charter, as well as updated qualitative and quantitative indicators for each of the minimum standards. The Handbook now contains four interconnected sections: the Humanitarian Charter, Protection Principles, Core Standards and Minimum Standards.

The bulk of the Handbook is comprised of the Core Standards and Minimum Standards. The Core Standards refer to common process standards applicable across all thematic and technical sectors. These include: participation by beneficiaries; co-ordination and collaboration; assessment and design of programmes; and key competences for humanitarian workers. Detailed sector-specific Minimum Standards, with corresponding key indicators and suggested activities, are then elaborated in four areas: water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion; food security and nutrition; shelter, settlement and non-food items; and health action. Cross-cutting these sectoral standards are thematic issues: children, disaster risk reduction, environment, gender, HIV/AIDS, older people, persons with disabilities and psychosocial support.

Preceding these is the Humanitarian Charter which forms the conceptual underpinning of the Handbook by drawing on international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law to reaffirm the primacy of the humanitarian imperative in all actions to assist those affected by disasters or conflicts. In this new edition, the Humanitarian Charter has been re-written to make it easier to read and structured more coherently around common humanitarian principles, and is followed by a new section on Protection Principles to provide guidance on how to operationalise the rights contained in the Charter.

The Humanitarian Charter centres around three overarching principles: the right to life with dignity; the right to protection and security; and the right to receive humanitarian assistance. In other words, the Charter is premised on the fact that civilians affected by natural or human-made disasters or armed conflict have a right to life with dignity, and therefore have a right to protection and assistance. It follows that an individual’s right to life entails the right to have steps taken to preserve life where it is threatened, and a corresponding duty on others to take such steps. Implicit in this is the duty not to withhold or frustrate the provision of life-saving assistance.

However, the Charter is explicit in recognising that these rights are not formulated in the same terms under international law, and while they reflect international law, the rights set out derive their force from the fundamental principle of humanity. By reflecting the ethical and moral obligations of humanitarian agencies, as well as the legal rights and duties of States, the Humanitarian Charter exceeds accepted binding norms of international law. It invokes the general principles of humanity and impartiality, and humanitarian agencies are expected to act in accordance with these principles.

Yet this expansive view of the relevant legal obligations raises the question of the legal validity of the Charter, and by extension the role that “soft law” or “non-legal normative standards” play in the development of new international norms. The Sphere Handbook is only one, albeit the best known, of several Quality and Accountability initiatives in the field of humanitarian assistance. The interplay and coherence between these non-Governmental regulatory approaches, and the potential codification of international law relating to the protection of persons in the event of disasters being led by the International Law Commission has yet to be determined.

Nevertheless, the development of the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards, and their revisions in 2004 and 2011, comprise the input of over 400 organisations from 80 countries. Many donors, including Governments and UN agencies, now require organisations to commit to the “Sphere standards” to access funding opportunities. Therefore, not withstanding its lack of legal enforceability, the Sphere Handbook should be viewed as a key text for the development of an international legal framework for international disaster response law. The Sphere Handbook represents the majority consensus of numerous humanitarian agencies and staff, and the inclusion of a specific reference to a right to humanitarian assistance is to be welcomed as part of the growing understanding of the rights-holders and duty-bears in disaster settings.

Copies of the new edition of the Sphere Handbook can be ordered from the publisher at: