The third edition of the Sphere Handbook, launched on Thursday, rewrites in clearer language its "Humanitarian Charter", which outlines core principles that should govern humanitarian action, and adds a chapter on the protection of populations caught up in natural disasters or armed conflict.
"What's important is that practice changes and moves with the times," said Matthias Schmale, under secretary general for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), one of a consortium of humanitarian agencies involved in producing the voluntary standards. "The focus before was on assistance - the provision of goods and shelter - but there has been a growing realisation that we can't just focus on physical needs."
Recent emergencies - including the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti and this year's protests and violence across North African countries, particularly Libya - have underscored the importance of protection in humanitarian response, Schmale said.
In Haiti, aid agencies did not pay enough attention to security for women until they were made aware of incidents of rape and sexual violence in camps for the homeless. And in Libya, the plight of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from countries like Sudan - many of them unable to return to home - has been largely overlooked, Schmale noted.
"There are vulnerable groups that no one is looking after, where the main issue is protection not material needs," he told AlertNet from Geneva.
The latest revision of the Sphere Project's "Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response" - which is often described as the "gold standard" for aid operations but has not been updated since 2004 - involved more than 650 experts from some 300 organisations in around 20 countries, including U.N. agencies. Since its first trial edition in 1998, the handbook has been translated into more than 40 languages.
RIGHTS OF PEOPLE
"Protection is concerned with the safety, dignity and rights of people affected by disaster or armed conflict," begins the handbook's new chapter on protection.
It goes on to outline four basic principles aid workers should adopt to protect communities from dangers they often face in humanitarian emergencies such as violence and sexual abuse.
The principles are: avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions; ensure people's access to impartial assistance in proportion to need and without discrimination; protect people from physical and psychological harm arising from violence and coercion; and assist people to claim their rights, access legal and other remedies, and recover from the effects of abuse.
Besides the effort to put protection on a more equal footing with physical relief, the updated standards place stronger emphasis on disaster risk reduction and the transition to early recovery after an emergency.
They recognise emerging issues for humanitarian agencies including the rising number of disasters linked to climate change, the use of cash transfers to deliver aid, and relations with military forces, which have played a growing role in emergency response in recent years. And they stress the need to communicate better with people caught up in disasters, and involve them more in decision making and leadership of aid efforts.
Rather than adding separate sections dedicated to these hot topics, however, the handbook incorporates them into its traditional "Core Standards" for the planning and implementation of humanitarian response, and "Minimum Standards", which deal with four sets of life-saving activities: water and sanitation, food security and nutrition, shelter and non-food relief items, and health.
Schmale said the aim is not to provide detailed guidance on how agencies should interact with national security forces or climate-proof their activities, for example, but to raise awareness about these fresh challenges, some of which are being tackled by separate initiatives in the aid world.
He added recent developments also highlight the need to remind the world of the three basic rights underpinning humanitarian action - the right to life with dignity, the right to receive humanitarian assistance, and the right to protection and security.
Schmale cited this year's floods and landslides in Bolivia - which have affected around 25,000 families - as a case where the right to receive aid has not been respected, mainly due to the international focus on the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan and unrest that has rippled across North Africa and the Middle East since January.
"There was no real attention, no resource mobilisation and no humanitarian assistance (in Bolivia)," he said. "We must stay focused on everyone who is involved in a humanitarian crisis or disaster."
Launching the revised Sphere standards in New York, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos described them as "an important part of the answer to concretely improve the quality, impact and predictability of assistance".
She urged governments and humanitarian agencies to use them whenever they provide or fund aid at home or overseas.
"I also hope that in our dialogue with people affected by emergencies we, humanitarian agencies, will promote these standards so that people feel empowered to assert their rights to dignity, protection and assistance, and are better able to hold their governments and the international community accountable," she said.