Walk the talk: Assessing the application of humanitarian principles on the ground

24 February 2015

The first expert panel of ICRC's Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action tackled the topic of the application of the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in operational environments. The panel discussed the practical relevance of the principles, the challenges to their application, and the question of whether they should be 'measured' or 'assessed' so as to best allocate resources and prioritize responses.


  • Helen Durham, Director, Department of International Law and Policy, ICRC


  • Marc DuBois, Former Executive Director, Médecins Sans Frontières UK (MSF UK)
  • Kate Halff, Executive Secretary, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR)
  • Sorcha O'Callaghan, Head of Humanitarian Policy, British Red Cross (BRC)

Summary of the conference

Practical relevance of the principles

Humanitarian principles have, beyond their normative aspiration, operational relevance for humanitarian actors.

One the one hand, principled action appears to be directly linked to acceptance of humanitarian actors on the ground. Sorcha O'Callaghan related the example of the Lebanese Red Cross, which, starting in the early 1980s, progressively managed to gain access throughout the country in a context of sectarian divisions, thanks to a concerted effort to devise a principled operational approach.

On the other hand, principles also serve to cut through very complex decision-making processes, notably when humanitarian actors can hardly weight the positive or negative implications of a given course of action. Marc DuBois explained that in Sierra Leone in 2001, MSF's conduct was guided by its humanitarian and impartiality imperatives when it controversially started to operate in areas controlled by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Hence importing the humanitarian principles' framework provides humanitarians actors facing crucial dilemmas with a guide to decision-making.

Finally, applying humanitarian principles in a systematic manner allows building a legacy of trust at a local level. According to Sorcha O'Callaghan, the Somali Red Cross owes some of its solid reputation to the mass relief it provided in the 1990s, and is still remembered two decades later for the hospital it ran throughout the war in spite of the pressure of local armed groups.

Respecting the principles

At the level of the organization, the principles create common references and a consistency of process around the examination of the different elements that need to come into a humanitarian actor's decision. Although the principles are integrated through staff trainings, many humanitarian actors tend to confuse them, or assume that being humanitarian inherently implies that they act in a principled way. Showcasing concrete examples of successful principled action appears to be the best solution to embed good knowledge and practice.

On another note, participants agreed that the principles should not constitute a dogma but rather tools for humanitarians to draw from. When asked by Helen Durham what they thought of the idea of fixing 'redlines' for principled action, they favored theoretical redlines leaving room for contextual adjusting. While some clear redlines can be set, such as not accepting military escorts, principled humanitarian action is often a deliberated and balancing act.

The panelists insisted that being transparent about the decision-making process: showing awareness of the trade-offs between principles, i.e. explaining why principles have been stretched or seemingly not respected in some situations, is necessary to justify humanitarian action and avoid misunderstandings.

Measuring the principles

Developing mechanisms to measure the application of the principles is essential to make sure that funding is not misapplied and that those in need are properly assisted. Kate Halff underlined that any assessment should be done taking into account the context and scale of decision-making.

At the local level, conducting needs assessment helps to allocate resources to affected populations in an impartial way: for example, having clear indications about levels of malnutrition guide humanitarian actors towards the most affected communities and provide them with a clear justification to do so.

At the global level, an organization can evaluate which field offices are most constrained by the origin of their fundraising, and reallocate funding to protect independence and neutrality perception. Humanitarian organizations can also assess the impact of their operations on the ground. Sorcha O'Callaghan underlined MSF's effort to study whether it had acted neutrally and done more good than harm in Darfur, as it was suspected that aid assets were at times diverted to fuel the military activity.

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The ongoing world-wide debate on principled humanitarian action has a resounding magnitude in 2015, a critical year marked by the 50th anniversary of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) Movement's Fundamental Principles, and by the upcoming 32nd International Conference of the RCRC in December.

The vivid Q&A session with the audience revealed the acute interest from the State representatives, the humanitarian practitioners and other policy-makers that filled the Humanitarium – ICRC's conference hall – on 24 February.

More events on principled humanitarian action will be convened throughout 2015 in Geneva and across the world. To be notified about future events and other law and policy news from the ICRC, suscribe to the Law & Policy Newsletter below.

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