Romancing principles and human rights: Are humanitarian principles salvageable?

"Classical" or "Dunantist" humanitarianism has traditionally been constructed around the core principles of neutrality (not taking sides) and impartiality (provision of assistance with no regard to ethnicity, religion, race or any other consideration, and proportional to need), plus the operational imperative (rather than a formal principle) to seek the consent of the belligerent parties. These principles, whilst never unchallenged, have dominated the contemporary discourse of humanitarianism and have been synonymous with or at least reflections of a presumed essential, enduring and universal set of humanitarian values. This paper offers a more dynamic and changing vision of the content of humanitarian action. It maps the origins and content of the "new humanitarian" critique of the humanitarian sector and principles and argues that this has both misrepresented the ethical content of neutrality and obscured what amount to significant operational adaptations that leave traditional humanitarianism well prepared for the contemporary operating environment.

About the author

Stuart Gordon and Antonio Donini

Dr Stuart Gordon is an academic in the International Development Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Prior to his appointment at LSE he was at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the UK Defence Academy. He has served in the UK Armed Forces as both a Regular and Reserve Officer, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During 2003 he was the Operations Director for the US/UK’s Iraq Humanitarian Operations Centre in Baghdad, and he subsequently co-authored the UK government’s Afghanistan “Helmand Road Map”. He specializes in the politics of conflict and humanitarian action. Antonio Donini is a Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University and Research Associate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He works on issues relating to humanitarianism and the future of humanitarian action. He served for twenty-six years at the United Nations in research, evaluation and humanitarian capacities. His last post was as Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan (1999–2002). He is the main author of the edited volume The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action (Kumarian Press, London, 2012).