What is a Complex Humanitarian Emergency (CHE)?

In 1994, the United Nations defined Complex Humanitarian Emergencies (CHE) as crises of political origin that occur due to the total or considerable breakdown of power structures, caused by internal or external conflicts, which requires a multilevel, intersectoral and coordinated response with support from the international community due to their complexities and devastating human, economic and social consequences.

Unlike disasters, CHEs are the product of actions that result in the dismantling of a country's capacities in order to serve political and/or economic interests or objectives.

In contrast to conventional wars between states, CHEs arise in situations of conflict or internal violence through the arbitrary or abusive use of power, the improper control of resources or territories, and/or hostilities between groups.

What standards protect the rights of individuals in a CHE?

International law is the framework of conditions of common interest for the protection of all humanity and its essential rights, compliance with which is binding on all States without exception. Within its branches, International Human Rights Law (IHRL) provides the most far-reaching standards of protection for individuals because of its universal nature, both in times of peace and war.

In the IHRL, the responsibility to respond to a humanitarian crisis lies primarily with the State of the country that suffers it, which has the obligation to use the maximum of available resources to guarantee the rights of the population, including the request of international support. When states are unable or unwilling to meet these obligations, it is the responsibility of the international community to offer support and ensure the protection of the population.

What is a humanitarian response?

A humanitarian response is the set of actions planned to meet the requirements of a CHE or a major disaster through the international humanitarian system.

This response has a coordinated and inter-sectoral working architecture involving a large number of actors and in which a Humanitarian Country Team is responsible for leading action plans, supporting local capacities, mobilizing resources, and assessing and reporting on the obstacles, progress and results of the response.

How should a humanitarian response be?

Humanitarian response operations must be proportionate and appropriate to the protection and assistance needs and be deployed in a predictable, flexible, rapid and effective manner. This requires favorable conditions of access and a safe environment for humanitarian work, as well as respect for the rights of affected populations, as established by international law.

It is incumbent upon all humanitarian actors, national and international, including UN representatives, to implement comprehensive protection strategies to address attempted human rights violations or to prevent their recurrence. These strategies must ensure that human rights protection and humanitarian action are compatible and mutually reinforcing.

There is international consensus that CHEs are multidimensional crises of political origin and complex nature, in which there are aggravated circumstances of economic fragility and a high social vulnerability. These crises generate a severe picture of insecurity for a large number of people, exposed to severe deprivation, extreme vulnerability and serious dangers of abuse, coercion, discrimination and violence.

Four Humanitarian Principles guide all humanitarian crises’ responses, defining the purpose of protection and assistance work. The first two are substantive principles of Humanity and Impartiality and the next two are operational principles of Neutrality and Independence, subject to compliance with the former. The framework of these principles is the Centrality of Protection, as a peremptory norm of international law in all humanitarian action.

The promptness and quality of needs-based crisis assessments play a crucial role in achieving an effective humanitarian response. These assessments must cover the impact and severity of the crisis, human rights violations, capacity gaps, population strategies, physical damage and security and operational constraints.  The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) sets the standards for quality, principled and accountable humanitarian action.

At the same time, Principles of Partnership exist between national and international humanitarian actors to increase transparency of humanitarian actions, trust and understanding between actors. These principles recognize the role of national civil society organizations in achieving an effective humanitarian response to crises. 

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Handbook on the Right to International Protection in Major Crises (spanish)

Human Rights in Humanitarian Crises




Right to protection and security

Every person has the right to be protected from abuse, coercion, violence and discrimination on any grounds and to have the means of security in situations of risk.

Dismantling or deliberate weakening of the rule of law and / or institutions.

Use of public powers for purposes outside the law or to impose exclusionary ideologies.

Arbitrary suspension of rights or their guarantees for an indefinite period of time and without justification.

Policies of repression to prevent demonstrations or to persecute dissident groups or sectors.

Propaganda or incitement to hatred and violence against individuals, populations or groups.

Right to preserve life when it is threatened

Every person has the right to life, which entails the duty to protect them from acts of violence and deprivation intended or expected to cause premature death.

Inaction in the face of death from starvation, hunger or preventable or treatable diseases.

Arbitrary prohibition or restrictions to assist persons in imminent danger of death.

Arbitrary deprivation of means of health, food, shelter and/or life support.

Denial of protection to victims threatened in their life or physical integrity.

Right to live with dignity

Every person has the right to basic conditions for living with dignity, including food, water, shelter, health, electricity, sanitation and emergency response services and operations.

Legislative, financial or political measures that undermine essential services.

Deliberate deprivation of access to essential goods and services due to discrimination.

Deliberate attacks or destruction of facilities and/or basic infrastructure.

Retaliation against personnel providing services in health, water, food and education.

Misappropriation of private assets affecting essential goods and services.

Monopolization of funds, goods and services for purposes of political or economic control.

Right to receive humanitarian assistance impartially and without discrimination

Every person has the right to seek and receive humanitarian protection and assistance in accordance with and in proportion to their needs, in humanitarian emergencies, disasters and armed conflict.

Refusal to recognize humanitarian needs in order to avoid obligations.

Creation of impediments to the entry of international assistance.

Restrictions on access to areas and facilities affected by a humanitarian emergency.

Deliberate deprivation, exclusion or conditioning of humanitarian assistance

Arbitrary restrictions on the internal movement of international assistance.

Politicization of humanitarian assistance to add support to one party.

Appropriation or diversion of funds, supplies or means for economic or political gain.

Attacks, persecution or criminalization for providing or receiving humanitarian assistance.

Arbitrary withdrawal of humanitarian assistance from people in need.

Right to the initiative of providing humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian organizations have the right to offer and provide assistance to all persons in disasters, emergencies and armed conflict, as well as to refugees and internally displaced persons.

Arbitrary prohibition of international humanitarian operations.

Arbitrary denial of visas or other legal documents for humanitarian personnel.

Expulsion of international personnel for offering or providing humanitarian assistance.

Illegal seizure, destruction or theft of humanitarian property.

Threats and attacks against international humanitarian personnel.