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The principles guiding humanitarian action seem to serve two main important purposes for the humanitarian sector: they function simultaneously as “tools for the job” and as catalysts for its identity.

With regards to the first of these two purposes, they provide a framework for making difficult choices in the field, in particular, and they help gain trust in the eyes of armed actors and society in general in times of conflicts and violence, when perceptions are a matter of life and death. In relation to the second, their codification is the result of the experience of humanitarian workers and in turn, since their adoption, they have contributed significantly to the shaping of the humanitarian sector’s identity, including the delimitation of its boundaries. This dual nature reinforces the inherent tension within the principles: they often tend to be invoked in a rhetorical, if not dogmatic manner as a reminder of the sector’s specific identity (and concomitant status) without being accompanied by action that is aligned with them. This can lead to allegations of hypocrisy with a negative impact on the broader humanitarian endeavour. All those claiming to abide by the principles need to “walk the talk”.

These two dimensions will continue to generate discussions and debate as the humanitarian sector evolves and needs to adapt to new types of crises in an ever-changing international political landscape. However, what may be the most important dimension of the principles is their universal appeal, beyond the humanitarian sector: They are not only principles of humanitarian actors, they are humanitarian principles, an ethos in action. The call to uphold human dignity, which lies in the principle of humanity, can and should be heard by all of us.

Hugo Slim writes:

“When human life is threatened amid violence and disaster, the person is the 
humanitarian goal, rather than some grand version of political society. Humanitarian action is a theology of person, not politics. There is no greater goal beyond the person in humanitarian action: not peace; not democracy; not religious conversion; not socialism; not political Islam; and not military victory.”

This is perhaps the principle of humanity in its universal dimension, which today needs to be reaffirmed the most, in particular in the face of armed actors which deny the basic tenets of humanity and in the face of a raison d’état, which continues to subjugate the humanitarian imperative to political, economic or military considerations.

Genuine and inclusive dialogue among humanitarian actors from different backgrounds can contribute to that. – In order to avoid finding themselves serving other agendas or falling into obsolescence, humanitarian actors themselves need to re-connect to the very ideal that set them in motion at their origins: that of humanity.


  1. This e-briefing is based on the text of the Editorial by Vincent Bernard for the issue of the International Review of the Red Cross on “Principles guiding humanitarian action”, IRRC, Vol. 97, No. 897/8 Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 7-18.
  2. Produced by Ali Baykal, Előd Balázs-Engelsen and Sarah Roxas.
  3. Additional contributions by Raphaël Dallaire Ferland, Maren Schulte, Jérémie Labbé, Mariya Chavdarova Nikolova.
  4. Cover photo, © Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).

© International Committee of the Red Cross, 2016. Feedback and suggestions may be sent to: