The Code of Conduct: humanitarian principles in practice


The Code of Conduct, a set of guiding principles for organizations involved in humanitarian activities, was written in 1994. In the following article, the ICRC's Bruce Biber, Deputy Head of Division, Policy and Cooperation within the Movement, argues that the Code of Conduct remains as relevant today as it was ten years ago.

Read the complete version of the Code of Conduct  

Ten years ago, the drafting of a " Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and non-Governmental Organisations in Disaster relief " responded to a real need. At that time, many donors felt disillusioned by development assistance which, despite decades of investment, seemed to produce few tangible results. In comparison, humanitarian action became highly attractive, producing an immediate, visible, and (at least on the surface) positive impact. This unprecedented donor interest in humanitarian assistance was particularly striking among states that, tragically, went so far as relying on it as the main means of responding to the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

In response to such a high rise of demand came a corresponding increase in supply. Parallel to the growth of existing agencies, a host of new, mainly non-governmental organisations suddenly came into existence. Although all claimed to be " humanitarian " , many launched operations in the field according to questionable, vague, or sometimes inexistent ethical standards. As a result, the integrity of humanitarian action itself was threatened.

Amongst such confusion, the Code of Conduct sought to establish common standards for disaster relief. It reaffirms the relevance and applicability of International Humanitarian Law in the event of armed conflict. It identifies the alleviation of human suffering as the prime motivation for humanitarian assistance, which must be provided on the basis of need al one and not as an instrument of government or foreign policy – ideals which correspond closely to the Red Cross / Red Crescent Principles of humanity, impartiality and independence.

In our view, it is clearly in the best interest of conflict victims that humanitarian agencies subscribe to such principles. 

The Code of Conduct also integrates development principles into its vision of humanitarian aid – much of which has subsequently become institutional practice for the ICRC. The principle of building disaster response on local capacities, for example, has become the cornerstone of the ICRC's cooperation policy, which seeks to strengthen the ability of National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to respond to the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict and internal strife in their own countries. The ICRC's strategic development plan for 2003-2006 ( " Programme de Direction " ) includes accountability toward conflict victims and the integration of their opinions in the planning, implementation and evaluation process for ICRC operations – ambitions which faithfully reflect the Code of Conduct (c.f., Principles 9 7, respectively).

Yet in today's operating environments, is the Code of Conduct still relevant? We think so.

A major challenge to ICRC operations today is the tendency of some state actors to integrate humanitarian activities into the conduct of their politico-military campaigns. Illustrations of this integrated approach include recent statements by some governments describing their military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as " mainly humanitarian " . Actions presented as humanitarian are becoming suspect, perceived – rightly or wrongly - as part of a wider strategy to defeat an opponent or enem y. If clear distinctions are not made between politico-military players and their implementing agencies on the one hand, and independent humanitarian actors such as the ICRC on the other hand, then humanitarian action in general threatens to be rejected, irrespective of who is involved and the actual integrity of their motives.

In such an environment, the validity of independent humanitarian action must be re-affirmed. This is how the Code of Conduct fully renews its relevance in today's world. The Code of Conduct is the expression of a common operational approach for providing help to those in need, based on strongly cherished principles and International Humanitarian Law. For the like-minded organisations which adhere to it, the Code of Conduct can serve as a basis for dialogue and debate – not only with other organisations, but also with political and military players that utilise humanitarian action as a tool for intelligence-gathering and winning " hearts and minds " . We must actively advocate our common approach, so that it may be fully understood, accepted, and respected - especially among those who now question or reject it.