A diplomat stands in front of a flag array.

Humanitarian Diplomacy in the 21st Century: How Diplomats Help Address Human Rights Violations


Potential for conflict will always exist in relations between nations. It’s the role of diplomacy to anticipate and address issues before they become conflicts. When conflicts are unavoidable, diplomats work to resolve disagreements peaceably to avoid violent confrontations.

Human rights advocation is a critical area of international conflict resolution in which diplomats play a key role. Nations with a high number of human rights violations are more prone to violent and quickly expanding conflict. Diplomats strive to prevent human rights abuses and promote respect for the political, civil, economic, and social rights of individuals in countries around the world.

Humanitarian diplomacy highlights the importance of good political relations in bringing aid and support to vulnerable peoples or groups whose rights and interests are threatened and whose voices are drowned out amid more prominent sociopolitical conflicts. The concept of human rights is more important now than at any time since the Cold War, as global powers shift and regional disagreements flare in response to the political, economic, and social disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Areas of the world already burdened with humanitarian crises will likely face more displaced populations and tighter flow of goods and people across borders, as William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in The Atlantic.
  • The health and well-being of children living in poverty are especially at risk as schools close, parents lose jobs and families face growing strains, according to UNICEF.
  • The International Rescue Committee estimates that as many as 1 billion COVID-19 infections and 3.2 million deaths could result in 34 “crisis-affected and fragile countries,” unless preventive measures are tailored to the conditions in those countries.

What Is Humanitarian Diplomacy?

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies answers the question, what is humanitarian diplomacy? as the ability to persuade decision-makers and opinion leaders to act in the best interests of all people at all times. Humanitarian diplomacy promotes fundamental humanitarian principles to political, economic, and social leaders in trouble spots around the world.

  • Violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state has caused more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh since 2017. Several governments and humanitarian organizations have coordinated diplomatic efforts to support both the displaced population and their local hosts, notes the Red Cross Talks blog.
  • While much humanitarian diplomacy effort focuses on specific regions, the field encompasses many vulnerable and disadvantaged groups whose populations transcend international boundaries. Social Protection and Human Rights lists many of these vulnerable groups:
    • Indigenous people
    • Informal and precarious workers
    • LGBTQI+
    • Migrants
    • Minority populations
    • Elderly people
    • People living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses
    • People with disabilities
    • People seeking asylum or refuge
  • The governments of Turkey and Kuwait played key roles in humanitarian efforts in Syria by assisting Syrian refugees as well as creating a joint photographic art exhibit for display at a shopping mall in Ankara to highlight the ability of humanitarian diplomacy to promote peaceful coexistence across borders, Arab News reports.

Goals of Humanitarian Aid

One characteristic of humanity is helping others in need, whether they’re family, members of our community, or total strangers. Heather Rysaback-Smith traces the roots of modern humanitarian aid to the first principles of conduct toward soldiers and civilians during wartime as devised by the empires of Greece and Rome as well as in Chinese General Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Modern humanitarian aid arose in the second half of the 20th century with the founding of the United Nations in the wake of World War II. The UN charter states that one of its purposes is “to achieve international co-operation in solving global problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian nature.” The UN’s humanitarian goals target four specific populations:

  • Helping refugees through the UN Refugee Agency, whose recent activity centers on coordinating the efforts of various countries to ensure humane treatment of the growing numbers of refugees and migrants.
  • Helping children via UNICEF’s efforts to encourage governments and warring parties to protect children by keeping them out of harm’s way.
  • Feeding the hungry through the World Food Program’s work to mobilize food and transportation for the UN Refugee Agency’s large-scale refugee feeding operations.
  • Helping the sick via the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) to coordinate an international response to humanitarian health emergencies, influencing health research efforts, and developing and implementing evidence-based health policies.

In 2003, the governments of 16 countries joined with international humanitarian organizations to define a set of 24 Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship. (The guidelines were modified in June 2018 with the addition of the 24th principle covering the use of cash transfers.)

The following principles of the humanitarian goals focus on helping governments and relief organizations to overcome the challenges faced in deploying aid.

  • Respect and promote international humanitarian law, refugee law, and human rights.
  • Involve aid beneficiaries in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of relief efforts.
  • Strengthen the ability of governments and local communities to prevent, prepare for, and mitigate humanitarian crises.
  • Support recovery efforts and long-term development to return affected populations to sustainable livelihoods.

What Are Human Rights Violations?

Understanding the link between humanitarian diplomacy and human rights requires answering the question, what are human rights violations? The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights offers several examples of violations of economic, social, and cultural rights by a government:

  • The forcible eviction of people from their homes (violates the right to housing).
  • Contaminating water (the right to health).
  • Failure to ensure that wages are sufficient to provide a “decent living” (the right to work).
  • Failure to prevent starvation (freedom from hunger).
  • Failure to prevent public and private entities from destroying or contaminating food or its source (the right to food).

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” United for Human Rights cites several examples of countries violating these rights:

  • Afghanistan failed to protect noncombatant civilians from armed conflict.
  • In Brazil, more than 1,000 people were killed by police in one year with little or no investigation.
  • In Uganda, more than 500,000 displaced persons died in internal camps.
  • Vietnam placed thousands of drug addicts and prostitutes in overpopulated “rehab” camps that, in fact, provided no treatment.

Perhaps, the greatest threats to human rights in countries around the world are the attacks on the rule of law. The UN emphasizes the integral role the rule of law plays in “anchoring economic, social, and cultural rights in national constitutions, laws, and regulations.” The relationship between the rule of law and human rights is described as “indivisible and intrinsic.”

In a Forbes opinion piece, legal consultant Mark A. Cohen cites the World Justice Forum’s four key components to the rule of law:

  • The government and its citizens are accountable under the law.
  • The laws are clear, just, and applied evenly to protect fundamental rights, including human rights.
  • How laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is fair, efficient, and accessible.
  • Legal matters are settled in a timely manner by competent, ethical, independent representatives who reflect the demographics of their constituencies.

The countries at the top of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2019 are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Finland. The bottom five countries are Chad, Syria, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and North Korea. The U.S. ranks 25th on the list and is labeled a “flawed democracy” due primarily to “a deterioration in the functioning of government category.” The U.S. ranking on the index has dropped steadily since placing 17th in 2010.

A Look at Key Humanitarian Issues

Few humanitarian crises have the widespread, long-lasting impacts of a pandemic. The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic rightly focuses on medical issues: treating people who are suffering from the disease, controlling the spread of the disease, and developing a vaccine. From a humanitarian perspective, these actions are only the beginning of the challenge.

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in his Atlantic essay that events such as the coronavirus pandemic make existing humanitarian issues worse. The risks are that the resulting insecurity will restrict border crossings, cause governments to become more authoritarian, and discourage countries from working together through international institutions to find long-term solutions to global problems.

Among the New Humanitarian’s list of the Ten Humanitarian Crises and Trends to Watch in 2020 (compiled prior to the pandemic outbreak), the danger of infectious diseases ranked third. In fact, all humanitarian issues identified by the news agency are exacerbated by the pandemic:

  • Urban displacement in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya shifts refugee camps for displaced persons from rural areas to urban centers where they live more densely packed together. As these cities lack the infrastructure to support the increase in population, humanitarian aid organizations are challenged to deliver needed food, medical supplies, and other material.
  • Economic vulnerability caused by governments with overwhelming debt, currency volatility, trade tensions, and political insecurity will have the greatest impact on the poorest and most at-risk populations around the world. Humanitarian agencies will need to shift their focus from predicting and responding to natural disasters to assisting people whose health and well-being are threatened by economic collapse.
  • Extreme weather and climate change are considered risk multipliers that stress global humanitarian efforts by exposing more vulnerabilities, increasing the cost of mounting a response, and raising the number of people who need humanitarian assistance by tens of millions each year. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that eight of the worst food crises in the world are connected to a combination of conflict and climate shocks.

Humanitarian diplomacy is central to efforts intended to overcome these and other challenges to the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid. Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, states on the Modern Diplomacy website that human rights are at the core of the COVID-19 pandemic. The long-term response to the crisis depends on achieving the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

How Do Diplomacy and Human Rights Relate?

In recent decades, human rights issues, once considered internal affairs of individual states, have become the object of humanitarian interventions, often spearheaded by the UN and global superpowers. As a result, military intervention may accompany humanitarian intervention that’s sometimes perceived as infringing on the sovereignty of the affected nations. As the Humanitarian and Social Research Center reports, the result can incite conflict rather than stop the conflict.

It is in these conflict situations that diplomacy and human rights relate directly. Humanitarian diplomacy attempts to solve potential problems via negotiation while simultaneously finding ways to provide relief to those affected by the crisis. The goal is to persuade decision-makers to act at all times in the interest of vulnerable populations and respect fundamental humanitarian principles by:

  • Allowing the active participation of humanitarian agencies in efforts to prevent, prepare for, and respond to crises
  • Including in the negotiation process the people impacted by crises, whether via organizations or individual representatives
  • Ensuring that humanitarian organizations are able to monitor the assistance programs
  • Promoting respect and support for international laws and the rights of indigenous peoples and organizations

Humanitarian diplomacy differs from “classic diplomacy” as it’s implemented without the benefit of a single government’s military or political power. However, both types of diplomacy are based on the goals of international humanitarian law, human rights, and refugee rights. The challenge for humanitarian diplomacy is achieving its goals without compulsory authority to enforce the laws in the event of noncompliance with or violation of international agreements.

Recent Humanitarian Efforts in Diplomacy

Nowhere is the challenge of humanitarian diplomacy in protecting human rights more evident than in Syria. Jan Egeland, the special adviser to the UN special envoy for Syria, describes the Syrian civil war as “a war when armed men are specializing in the suffering of civilian populations, and those that are the sponsors are not able to end it.” The only way to end the fighting in the country, according to Egeland, is securing the cooperation of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Even in such intractable situations as Syria, diplomacy can enhance humanitarian efforts. The European Council on Foreign Affairs explains that the decision by the U.S. government to “increase Syria’s isolation and domestic economic pain,” despite Bashar Assad’s military successes, puts pressure on European governments to focus on reestablishing stability in the country, in part to stem the tide of refugees heading to Europe.

The Middle East Monitor predicts that the critical importance of global governance and multilateralism will become increasingly evident in the wake of the international COVID-19 response. The coordinated international efforts, cooperation, multilateralism, and solidarity “expose the fallacy of go-it-alone isolationism,” according to the author, Anis Ben Brik.      

Humanitarian diplomacy will play a critical role in addressing acute food insecurity, which one UN official warned could reach “biblical proportions” due to the combined effects of climate change, conflicts, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises states that 135 million people in 55 countries experienced acute food insecurity in 2019, and an additional 183 million people in 47 countries are classified as “stressed” and at risk of experiencing a food crisis.

Diplomacy That Safeguards Humanity

The world faces unprecedented challenges. The good news is that we’ve always found ways to overcome them. Finding solutions to climate change, famine, pestilence, conflicts, and threats to human rights requires the hard work of skilled individuals in promoting and sustaining humanitarian diplomatic efforts to improve the situations of vulnerable peoples in all countries.

Providing the knowledge, training, and experience that humanitarian diplomats need is the goal of Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in Diplomacy program, which offers students a choice of four concentrations: Cyber Diplomacy - Policy or Technical, International Commerce, International Terrorism, and International Conflict Management. Courses in the program’s core curriculum include Theory and the International System; The History of Diplomacy in the International System; and Law and the International System.

Learn more about the benefits of the Master of Arts in Diplomacy program and embark on a career in humanitarian diplomacy.

Recommended Readings

Diplomacy Careers in Cybersecurity That Don’t Require a Technical Background
Defining International Terrorism: An Essential Concept for a Career in Diplomacy
Types of Diplomacy Positions and Their Importance to Improved International Relationships


A Make-or-Break Test for American Diplomacy, The Atlantic
Covid-19 Pandemic ‘Quickly Becoming a Child’s Rights Crisis’: Daily Death Rate Could Spike by 6,000 for Under-Fives, United Nations
World Risks Up to 1 Billion Cases and 3.2 Million Deaths from COVID-19 Across Fragile Countries, International Rescue Committee
Humanitarian Diplomacy, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
How Humanitarian Diplomacy Helps in Complex Emergencies, Canadian Red Cross
Disadvantaged and Vulnerable Groups, Social Protection and Human Rights
Humanitarian Diplomacy Strongest Weapon Against Global Challenges, Arab News
History and Principles of Humanitarian Action, ResearchGate
Deliver Humanitarian Aid, United Nations
24 Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Aid, Good Humanitarian Donorship
Key Concepts on ESCR—What Are Examples of Violations of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights?, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations
Human Rights Violations, United for Human Rights
Rule of Law and Human Rights, United Nations
2020 Vision: Focus on Defending the Rule of Law, Forbes
Democracy Index 2019, Economist Intelligence Unit
Ten Humanitarian Crises and Trends to Watch in 2020, The New Humanitarian
Global Humanitarian Overview 2020, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
‘Urgency to Act’ for Sustainable Development, Greater Than Ever as Pandemic Continues, Modern Diplomacy
About the Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations
A New Discipline: Humanitarian Diplomacy and Its Principles, Humanitarian and Social Research Center
Humanitarian Diplomacy ‘Getting Nowhere’ in Syria Warns UN Special Adviser, United Nations
Society Max: How Europe Can Help Syrians Survive Assad and the Coronavirus, European Council on Foreign Relations
Post-Pandemic, Will Arab Countries See National Parochialism or Regional Solidarity?, Middle East Monitor
Senior Officials Sound Alarm Over Food Insecurity, Warning of Potentially ‘Biblical’ Famine, in Briefings to Security Council, ReliefWeb
Global Report on Food Crises 2020, ReliefWeb

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