Principles guiding humanitarian action

IRRC No. 897/898

Principles guiding humanitarian action

What are the main challenges that humanitarian actors face in upholding a principled approach in today's crises and emergencies? How are "principles guiding humanitarian action" understood by different actors and used in contemporary field realities? These are the questions to which the Review sought a response in this issue. The contributions highlight three important dimensions of the principles guiding humanitarian action: (1) they function simultaneously as "tools to do the job" - providing a compass to navigate through difficult choices in situations of conflicts and violence (2) as "identity catalysts" – resulting from the experience of humanitarian workers, principles in turn contribute to shaping the humanitarian sector's identity and boundaries , and (3) as an "ethos in action" – they are not only principles of humanitarian actors, they are humanitarian principles; the call to uphold human dignity, embedded in the principle of humanity, can and should be heeded by all of us.

Table of contents

  • Editorial: Principles guiding humanitarian action

    On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement) and the 32nd International Conference of the Movement at the end of 2015, as well as the World Humanitarian Summit in early 2016, several initiatives are under way to study the contemporary practice and impact of the Fundamental Principles, and to reaffirm their relevance. The Review decided to contribute to this research and debate, both by soliciting contributions from experts and practitioners in this thematic issue, and in the context of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) Second Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action throughout 2015, which has hosted a number of substantive discussions on the Principles.
    Vincent Bernard, International Review of the Red Cross

  • The new editorial board of the International Review of the Red Cross

    The editorial team of the Review is pleased to introduce the journal’s new Editorial Board. The Editorial Board ensures the journal’s academic independence and assists in developing the editorial line. It further assists the editorial team in selecting future themes, identifying potential authors and peer reviewers, and representing the Review worldwide. The diversity of the Editorial Board’s composition additionally helps the journal to take into account all relevant perspectives, including in terms of academic fields and geographic origins, in exploring today’s humanitarian challenges. Beyond an expertise in international law and international relations, the Editorial Board members bring a considerable wealth of experience in the fields of history, political science, human rights and humanitarian action.

  • Interview with Mr Ma Qiang

    In this issue, the Review wanted to give a voice to different perspectives on the principles guiding humanitarian action. The Chinese Red Cross is an interesting example of a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement operating according not only to the seven Fundamental Principles of the Movement, but also to three additional values (or “spirits”), namely humanity, fraternity and dedication. Whereas the Fundamental Principles serve as institutional rules and provide operational guidance, the three spirits serve as an ideology for members of the Chinese Red Cross. In addition, over the last few years, the Chinese Red Cross has become more and more involved in disaster response operations abroad (for instance, in the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and the earthquake in Nepal in 2015), as well as in China. It is expected that Chinese disaster response organizations will be increasingly involved in future international crises. The Review spoke to Mr Ma Qiang, former Executive Vice-President of the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Red Cross, the oldest Red Cross branch in China, to find out more about how he sees the evolution of the humanitarian sector and the challenges to principled humanitarian action in today’s world.
    Ma Qiang, Former Executive Vice-President of the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Red Cross

  • Humanitarian principles put to the test: Challenges to humanitarian action during decolonization

    This article examines the meaning and purpose of the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement during and after decolonization. This was a period when the character of conflict experienced far-reaching changes, when the limitations of international humanitarian law were sharply exposed, and when humanitarian organizations of all kinds – the International Committee of the Red Cross included – redefined their missions and mandates. The Fundamental Principles were caught up in these processes; subject to a resurgent State sovereignty, they were both animated and constrained by the geopolitical forces of the era. The article pays particular attention to the politicization of the Principles in the contexts of colonial counter-insurgency, political detention and transfers of power.
    Andrew Thompson, Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter

  • 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.
    Stuart Gordon and Antonio Donini

  • Unpacking the principle of humanity: Tensions and implications

    Humanity is at once the most universally and uncritically accepted humanitarian principle. It is not, however, without controversy. This article defines the principle of humanity and then explores its inherent tensions, related to universality and particularism, inclusion and exclusion, and equality and inequality. The article concludes with a call to operationalize and concretize humanity through three sets of transformative practices and everyday actions. Together these embody the relational nature of humanity, and suggest ways forward in reforming humanitarianism.
    Larissa Fast, Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science

  • Volunteers and responsibility for risk-taking: Changing interpretations of the Charter of Médecins Sans Frontières

    The Charter of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the guiding document for all of the organization's members, states in the final paragraph that volunteers "understand the risks and dangers of the missions they carry out". Through a review of the different periods in the history of MSF, this article analyzes the changing interpretations that the organization's successive leaders have given to this reference to the acceptance of risk by individuals. The professionalization and expansion of MSF, coupled with its diversifying volunteer base and the changing international environment, have required constant renegotiation of the balance between institutional and individual responsibility for the dangers faced in the field. No doubt this process is far from over.
    Dr Caroline Abu Sa’Da and Xavier Crombé

  • A matter of principle(s): The legal effect of impartiality and neutrality on States as humanitarian actors

    This article examines the legal nature of the principles of impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian action, focusing on States as humanitarian actors. It argues that international law does not provide a general legal basis for the universal applicability of these principles, contrary to a common interpretation of the International Court of Justice's 1986 judgment in the Nicaragua case. Nevertheless, impartiality and neutrality may have a significant legal effect on the conduct of States. They may be directly binding on States through the operation of Security Council resolutions drafted in mandatory language. In addition, they may have indirect effect due to the States' obligation to respect humanitarian organizations' adherence to the principles. On the basis of this argument, the article pleads for increased conceptual clarity and, in turn, effectiveness of humanitarian action.
    Kubo Mačák, Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter

  • Applying the humanitarian principles: Reflecting on the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross

    Applying the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in a relevant manner in concrete operational settings is a constant challenge for humanitarian organizations. Bound by this set of norms, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has incrementally developed over the years a rational framework that allows its leadership and staff on the ground to act according to these principles while developing adapted solutions and pragmatic approaches. This article begins by describing the history and development of the humanitarian principles; it then explains how the strategic choices of the ICRC are informed by these principles, and what the consequences are for the organization's capacity to act in favour of victims of armed conflicts.
    Jérémie Labbé
    Pascal Daudin, Senior Policy Adviser

  • Walking the walk: Evidence of Principles in Action from Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies

    Using evidence from nine different National Societies, this essay illustrates how the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are practically applied in today's diverse contexts. The research has found that the Principles are not just abstract concepts but are in fact practical tools for initiating and implementing a range of programmes, particularly in difficult situations. The Fundamental Principles are useful for increasing access in both conflict and peaceful situations. Strong leadership is an important factor to ensure that the Principles are applied, particularly when neutrality is challenged. Lastly, all seven Principles work together and give additional strength to programmes when working as part of the Movement.
    Amelia B. Kyazze, Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser at the British Red Cross

  • Legislating against humanitarian principles: A case study on the humanitarian implications of Australian counterterrorism legislation

    The humanitarian principles – humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence – have come to characterize effective humanitarian action, particularly in situations of armed conflict, and have provided a framework for the broader humanitarian system. Modern counterterrorism responses are posing significant challenges to these principles and the feasibility of conducting principled humanitarian assistance and protection activities. This article explores the origins of the principles, the history behind their development, and their contemporary contribution to humanitarian action. The article then discusses some of the ways in which the principles are threatened, both by practice and by law, in the Australian context, and finally makes suggestions as to how the principles can be reclaimed and protected for the future of effective, impartial humanitarian action.
    Dr. Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Director
    Yvette Zegenhagen, National manager
    Fauve Kurnadi, Coordinator

  • From Fundamental Principles to individual action: Making the Principles come alive to promote a culture of non-violence and peace

    This paper focuses on the individual perspective, as opposed to the institutional or operational one, towards the Fundamental Principles and their underpinning humanitarian values. It demonstrates the added value of this perspective, which goes beyond addressing challenges regarding the Fundamental Principles' understanding and application. By making the Principles and values come alive in peoples' behaviour, the individual perspective also enables Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers to inspire a change of mindset and behaviour towards a culture of non-violence and peace. Two tools created to this purpose, as well as their impact, are presented: (i) the Seven Skills for Seven Principles (747) framework, which unpacks the high-level Principles into more concrete and tangible components, values and intra- and interpersonal skills; and (ii) the Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change (YABC) initiative, which, using a non-cognitive learning approach, fosters a personal connection towards the Principles and increases participants' ability to role-model them.
    Katrien Beeckman, Head of the Principles and Values Department at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

  • Coming clean on neutrality and independence: The need to assess the application of humanitarian principles

    Neutrality and independence continue to be part of the four core humanitarian principles, in addition to humanity and impartiality. Promoting these principles needs to go hand in hand with efforts to apply and implement them. Applying neutrality and independence is a considerable undertaking. This article explains the various aspects of these two principles that are crucial for understanding and applying them. The author suggests that these aspects should be taken into account in assessing whether humanitarian organizations are managing to uphold the principles. In turn, these assessments will enable humanitarian organizations and other stakeholders in humanitarian action to understand what the opportunities and obstacles are in applying independence and neutrality.
    Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, Executive Director of HERE-Geneva

  • Tools to do the job: The ICRC’s legal status, privileges and immunities

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) enjoys a specific legal status and specific privileges and immunities under both international and domestic law. They enable the ICRC to effectively carry out its mandate, and to do so in full conformity with its Fundamental Principles and standard working modalities. This article clarifies the ICRC's particular legal status and explains the rationale, scope and legal sources of its privileges and immunities.
    Els Debuf, Legal Adviser in the Office of the Head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Faith inspiration in a secular world: An Islamic perspective on humanitarian principles

    In recent years, there has been more and more interaction and engagement between “faith-based” organizations (FBOs) and secular humanitarian organizations. While humanitarian organizations operate under the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, it is often believed that faith-based organizations cannot be neutral or impartial due to their religious identity and agenda. Drawing on the research of Islamic Relief Worldwide, this article looks critically at connections that can be drawn between Islamic religious principles and those upheld as key to secular humanitarian action. The article outlines the Islamic maqasid al-Shari’ah framework as an example of how religious-based approaches can provide a basis for humanitarian action that is both relevant to Islamic communities and complementary to humanitarian principles.
    Lucy V. Salek, Senior Policy Adviser on Conflict Transformation for Islamic Relief Worldwide

  • “Rahmatan lil-’alamin” (A mercy to all creation): Islamic voices in the debate on humanitarian principles

    This article documents the work of Islamic charities and NGOs from diverse backgrounds to develop sets of principles guiding their humanitarian and charitable work, in the framework of the dialogue and cooperation among Islamic NGOs and charities as well as between Islamic and Western humanitarian agencies. The authors look at draft documents that resulted from these processes, and the way these relate to the core principles of humanitarian action. They further follow how the dialogue and cooperation between humanitarian organizations from different backgrounds and origins has influenced the orientation of this debate on humanitarian principles from theory and identity to concrete and shared challenges and concerns.
    Abdulfatah Said Mohamed
    Ronald Ofteringer

  • Faith and impartiality in humanitarian response: Lessons from Lebanese evangelical churches providing food aid

    This case study of a network of evangelical churches in Lebanon, based on data collected during an evaluation in 2014, presents a critique of common understandings about the humanitarian principle of impartiality, and questions assumptions about the compatibility between religious fervour and humanitarian values. Churches attempting to respect impartiality while implementing a food aid project for Syrian refugees have sought to mitigate potential problems through relationship-building and promotion of human dignity in order to ensure needs- responsiveness. Though many Lebanese Evangelical Christians do continue to engage in evangelistic activity, they benefit from strong community ties and demonstrate a high level of sensitivity to their beneficiaries' urgent needs as well as their sense of dignity.
    Kathryn Kraft, Lecturer in International Development at the University of East London

  • Opinion note: Is neutral humanitarian action permissible under Islamic law?

    In this Opinion Note, Mohd Hisham Mohd Kamal examines neutral humanitarian action during armed conflicts from an Islamic perspective. By analyzing the Qur’an and the Sunnah, he finds that it is permissible to recognize a neutral third party. Moreover, Mohd Hisham Mohd Kamal considers siyasah al-Shar’iyyah and maqasid al-Shari’ah and finds that neutrality leads to the protection of lives and dignity and is thus compatible with the two concepts. He concludes that neutrality is permissible from the Islamic perspective.
    Mohd Hisham Mohd Kamal, Associate Professor at International Islamic University Malaysia

  • Memorandum: The ICRC’s privilege of non-disclosure of confidential information

    Proceedings of a judicial, quasi-judicial, public inquiry, fact-finding or similar nature, in which confidential communications of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) risk being disclosed, raise important challenges for the ICRC's capacity to carry out its internationally recognized mandate. In order to carry out that mandate and fully assume its operational role in the protection and assistance of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, confidentiality is an essential tool that allows the ICRC to build the necessary trust to secure access, open channels of communication, influence change and ensure the security of its staff. The purpose of this Memorandum is to, first, provide the rationale for and broad practical context of confidentiality as the ICRC's working method; second, outline the legal sources on which the ICRC bases its requests that national and other authorities protect the confidentiality of its communications from public disclosure and from being used in legal proceedings; and third, set out the scope of application of the ICRC's evidentiary privilege regarding confidential information.

  • Speech: Humanitarian diplomacy and principled humanitarian action

    The following speech was given by the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, on 2 October 2014 at the Maison de la Paix in Geneva during a conference organized by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Maurer recalled the continued relevance and importance of the humanitarian principles and warned that a lack of common understanding, as well as politicized uses of the principles, jeopardizes the scope and scale of humanitarian action. The speech launched the ICRC's Second Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action. Throughout 2015 – the year of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Movement (the Movement) and of the 32nd International Conference of the Movement, and leading to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 – the Research and Debate Cycyle has gathered key actors in the humanitarian field during public events and high-level conferences.1 These events have encouraged substantive discussions on the principles among experts from the Movement, the humanitarian, governmental and academic fields, and other informed participants.
    Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC

  • What’s new in law and case law around the world?

    The biannual update on national legislation and case law is an important tool for promoting the exchange of information on national measures for the implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL). In addition to a compilation of domestic laws and case law, the biannual update includes other relevant information related to regional events organized by the ICRC, to the development of national committees for the implementation of IHL and similar bodies, and to accession and ratification of IHL and other related international instruments.

  • Book review: Humanitarian ethics: A guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster

    As the humanitarian enterprise faces some of its toughest challenges in trying to help people suffering from an unprecedented number of simultaneous conflicts and disasters around the world, Hugo Slim's new book Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster takes us on a fascinating journey into the heart of what it is we are trying to do, why we are doing it, and how. His deeply insightful examination of humanitarian ethics unpacks the values behind the humanitarian endeavour, the moral tensions that arise in carrying it out, and the ways in which humanitarian individuals and organizations can think through these issues and strive to act in the most responsible way they can.
    Fiona Terry, Independent researcher

  • Book review - International law and armed conflict: Fundamental principles and contemporary challenges in the law of war

    Many will readily agree with Jean Pictet that in-depth knowledge of international humanitarian law (IHL) – also often referred to as the law of armed conflict (LOAC) or the laws of war – is necessary for lawyers, members of the armed forces, humanitarian practitioners and others involved in or working on issues related to armed conflicts. Few will generally advocate for a broad, non-targeted dissemination among the public at large. And yet, some degree of understanding of the basic rules and principles applicable in situations of armed conflict may also be valuable for anyone interested in world politics and international affairs. What is the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan today, and why does that matter? Is the Islamic State an organized armed group? How does the law protect the civilian population in Syria or in the Central African Republic? Are chemical weapons prohibited, and if so, how? These are only some of the questions that any well-informed citizen may ask on a daily basis, and IHL provides the answers to all of them.
    Anne Quintin, Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

  • New publications in humanitarian action and the law (Spring/Summer 2015)

    This selection is based on the new acquisitions of the ICRC Library and Public Archives.