IHL and humanitarian principles

The Advanced IHL Learning Series are addressed to lecturers and trainers who wish to update their knowledge of the latest developments and challenges in international humanitarian law (IHL) and other related areas. They enable lecturers to update and deepen their expertise in topical issues, have access to teaching resources and introduce the topics in their course or training.

Combining theory and practice, the series follow a methodology involving videos, reading materials and various teaching tools. Many resources are taken from the latest edition of the Advanced Seminar in IHL for University Professors. The videos feature live lectures and discussions by the speakers and participants at the seminar. Presentations made and opinions expressed in the series only reflect the views of the lecturers concerned and not necessarily those of the ICRC.


Introduction to IHL and humanitarian principles

Since the seven Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement were adopted in 1965 by the Twentieth International Conference of the Red Cross, they have provided a pragmatic operational framework for humanitarian work worldwide. By crystallizing the Movement's century-long humanitarian practice in the field, the principles were intended to ensure effective humanitarian action to help all those affected by armed conflicts, other situations of violence and natural disasters. They promote an operational approach dictated solely by existing humanitarian needs. Beyond their practical and legal dimensions, the principles reflect a high ideal of humanity, morality and universality. Yet, humanitarian action was born not from an abstract idea but on the battlefield. The principles are therefore only valid insofar as they manifest in concrete realities, such as in response to humanitarian needs arising from armed conflict. In that regard, understanding the close interaction between humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law is crucial for any lecturer addressing the topic.

What are the respective aims of IHL and the humanitarian principles? What are their sources? Who are they addressed to? Does IHL refer to the principles? What is the normative framework governing relief operations? How can the principles help foster respect for IHL? This Advanced IHL Learning Series provides lecturers with a wide range of resources to understand and teach these issues.

The Fundamental Principles

humanity impartiality neutrality independence
voluntary service unity universality


The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.

It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.

The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.

Voluntary service
It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.

There can be only one Red Cross or one Red Crescent Society in any one country. It must be open to all. It must carry on its humanitarian work throughout its territory.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.

Learning objectives

At the end of the series, users will be able to:

  • better understand the ideals and spirit guiding the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
  • explain the origin, purpose and relevance of the principles
  • grasp the respective natures of, and understand the interplay between, humanitarian principles and IHL principles
  • distinguish between the substantive, operational and institutional nature of the principles
  • identify how the Geneva Conventions and other sources of IHL stipulate how relief activities are to be conducted in conformity with the humanitarian principles
  • identify and discuss current challenges to contemporary humanitarian action
  • understand how the ICRC applies humanitarian principles in practice.

Structure of the course

1. Required and suggested readings: before watching the videos, lecturers and humanitarian professionals are invited to familiarize themselves with the topic by working their way through the required and suggested reading.

2. Videos: the entire session can then be watched at once, or by chapter, depending on the need and specific interest of each user. Videos can also be watched and discussed in class, as an introduction to the topic triggering questions and debate.

3. Teaching tools: ICRC tools on how to teach IHL as well as specific, ready-to-use teaching materials on IHL and humanitarian principles are available. Lecturers are encouraged to use them to integrate the topic in their course or training.

4. Further reading and resources: lecturers and humanitarian professionals are encouraged to further explore the topic via additional resources (e.g. ICRC statements, publications, event reports) about IHL and humanitarian principles and related topics. Researchers may wish to use them as informative sources for their research projects on this topic.

Speaker biographies

Jérémie Labbé, ICRC

Jérémie Labbé has been heading up the "Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action" project at the ICRC since July 2014. Prior to this, he worked for the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York, where he developed a new programme on humanitarian affairs. His work has focused on adapting the international humanitarian system to a changing world, the relevance of humanitarian principles, protection of civilians and international humanitarian law, and the relationship between humanitarian action and UN integration. Before joining the IPI in 2010, Jérémie spent several years with the ICRC, both at headquarters in Geneva (Legal Division) and on various field missions in India, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Iraq.

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict / European University Institute

From 2007 to 2012 Emanuela-Chiara Gillard was chief of the Protection of Civilians Section in the Policy Development and Studies Branch of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Prior to that, she spent seven years as legal adviser at the ICRC. There she was responsible for advising headquarters and field colleagues on legal issues relating to: the protection of civilians in armed conflict, especially children; assistance activities; multinational forces; occupation; and private military/security companies. Before joining the ICRC, Emanuela was a legal adviser at the United Nations Compensation Commission. And from 1995 to 1997 she was a research fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge. Emanuela holds a B.A. in Law and an LL.M. from the University of Cambridge. She is a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales.

Reading materials

Required reading

Suggested reading

Watch the videos

Specific teaching tools on IHL and humanitarian principles

Further reading and resources

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