Human Rights-Humanitarian Divide

Excellent piece by Eric Weingartner published by 38 North (“Reconciling the Human Factor: Understanding the North Korean Human Rights/Humanitarian Divide”, 5/2013) on the divide between Humanitarian Activism and Human Rights Activism.

Not only do their goals and methods often contradict each other, their practitioners sometimes engage in verbal battles and mutual recrimination….

Humanitarian agencies aim to ease human suffering. Human rights organizations aim to outlawhuman suffering.
Humanitarians work within whatever is the prevailing system, in order to deliver commodities, tools and skills to those in need. Human rights activists work to changesystems that they believe are the cause of assaults on human dignity.
Humanitarians aim to raise the living standards of those without power. Human rights aim to enforce standards of behavior on those in power.


The most widely used tactic in the toolkit of human rights activists is exposing the misdeeds of violators and putting international pressure on them to alter their behavior. In other words, “blame and shame.” Naturally, the most eager allies in such campaigns are countries that are enemies of the country whose behavior you want to change. And this leaves a fertile soil for political manipulation.

The human rights deficit is considered to be so extreme in North Korea that the only solution is regime change. This is unlikely to evolve through internal reform. Therefore every conceivable pressure should be put on the DPRK, including—if necessary—military means. North Korean human rights conditions should be condemned at all levels in all countries, in the media, and of course at the United Nations. Human rights concerns should be part of every negotiation involving North Korea, including the stalled Six Party Talks that deal with the nuclear issue.

Although humanitarian agencies shy away from voicing political opinions in public, my private conversations with relief workers in the DPRK reveal that many consider the actions taken by the powers surrounding North Korea singularly ill-advised. Threatening violence against North Korea by military means merely intensifies the atmosphere of crisis and fear that is already experienced by its population, and thereby provides the rationale that feeds the regime’s repressive apparatus. Humanitarians generally agree that neither war nor the threat of war advance the cause of human rights.

Source: Eric Weingartner, 38 North

Photo Credit: UN

The photo was taken during Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos’ five-day mission in the country to assess food aid needs.

Photo ID 492097. 20/10/2011. Wonsan City, DPRK. UN Photo/David Ohana.