This article examines the recent revision of the Sphere Minimum Standards in disaster response relating to food security, nutrition and food aid. It describes how the revision attempted to incorporate the principles of the Humanitarian Charter, as well as relevant human rights principles and values into the Sphere Minimum Standards. The initial aim of the revision was to ensure that the Sphere Minimum Standards better reflected the principles embodied in the Humanitarian Charter. This was later broadened to ensure that key legal standards and principles from human rights and humanitarian law were considered and also incorporated, in part to fill the ‘protection gap’ within the existing standards. In relation to the food security, nutrition and food aid standards, it was agreed by participants in the process that the human right to adequate food and freedom from hunger should be incorporated. In relation to more general principles underlying the Humanitarian Charter, itself drawn largely from human rights and humanitarian law, it was agreed that there was a need to strengthen ‘protection’ elements within the standards and a need to incorporate the basic principles of the right to life with dignity, non-discrimination, impartiality and participation, as well as to explore the relevance of the concept of the progressive realisation of the right to food.
The questions raised in linking rights to operational standards required thought, on the one hand, about whether the technical standards reflected a deep understanding of the values expressed within the legal instruments, and whether the existing standards were adequate in relation to those legal rights. On the other hand, it also required reflection on how operational standards like Sphere could give concrete content to human rights, such as the right to food and the right to be free from hunger. However, there remain challenges in examining what a rights-based approach will mean in terms of the role of humanitarian agencies as duty-bearers of rights, given that the primary responsibility rests with state governments. It will also require reflection on the modes and mechanisms of accountability that are brought to bear in ensuring the implementation of the Minimum Standards.