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Unpacking principles where values and pragmatism meet


The values underlying humanitarian principles - such as charity, compassion, mercy and respect for human life and dignity – are ever-present in all societies and religions (Christian alms, dāna in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, zakat in Islam, tzedakah in Judaism etc.) and penetrate various areas of life: for instance, the need to provide medical care according to need and without any discrimination is enshrined in medical ethics.

The humanitarian sector has broadly adopted the four principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality, commonly referred to as humanitarian principles and largely influenced by the seven Fundamental Principles of the Movement. The three other principles – unity, universality and voluntary service – relate to the distinctive structure and operation of the Movement. For this reason, they are considered as “organic principles” (i.e. mostly institutional in character) by Jean Pictet Jean Pictet, Former Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Jean Simon Pictet (born 2 September 1914 in Geneva, died 30 March 2002 in Meyrin) was a Swiss jurist, expert in international humanitarian law and senior staff member and Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was the main architect of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I and Protocol II. He also proposed the Red Cross Movement’s seven Fundamental Principles, which were adopted at Vienna in 1965: Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality. , the Swiss international jurist and senior ICRC staff member who developed the seven Fundamental Principles as they were adopted in 1965.


Short personal testimonies and powerful reflections on the meaning and impact of the 7 Fundamental Principles, presented on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. (Vienna, October 2015).

The United Nations General Assembly has also adopted and recognized the first four as the main guiding principles for international humanitarian action under the UN system. (UN GA Res. 46/182 enshrined the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality, while UN GA Res 58/114 recognized independence). These four humanitarian principles have also been codified in their contemporary form through several other sources such as: the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement; the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief; The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response; the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability.

This e-briefing uses the phrase “principles guiding humanitarian action” to refer to both the Fundamental Principles and humanitarian principles, and to acknowledge other values and standards underlying humanitarian action. Noteworthy suggestions (e.g. accountability, participation of the beneficiaries, the “do no harm” principle, or the need for sustainability in relief efforts) have come from sources like the Sphere Project, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International and UNICEF.

As guiding notions of humanitarian action, the principles emphasize the value of human life, with a view to protecting people in times of perils and emergency. In their contemporary codified form, the principles find their source at the intersection between humanism, philanthropy and the practical necessity related to organizing a systematic and effective response to multiple humanitarian needs. They derive from field practice and lessons learned over more than a century as part of the development of modern humanitarian action. While some of them were clearly present in the minds of the pioneers of modern humanitarian action, their actual formalization took several decades. States that signed the 1949 Geneva Conventions recognized them in international humanitarian law when they agreed that National societies “shall be able to pursue their activities in accordance with Red Cross principles.” In 1965, the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Vienna officially adopted a list of seven Fundamental Principles. The Commentaries to the Fundamental Principles, authored by Jean Pictet, are still their most authoritative source of interpretation. Since then, the 1977 Additional Protocols further committed States to allow the Movement to carry out its activity in accordance with these principles, a commitment reiterated in the Statutes of the Movement in 1986.

  1. The Battle of Solferino

    June 24, 1859

    The armies of France and Piedmont-Sardinia clash with Austrian forces near the village of Solferino, in northern Italy. Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnesses the bloody aftermath and helps organize aid for wounded soldiers on all sides. He returns to Geneva deeply committed to improving the lot of people wounded in battle.""

  2. A Memory of Solferino

    January 1, 1862

    Dunant publishes his book, A Memory of Solferino, and begins an intensive lobbying campaign to gain support for his idea of an international volunteer corps to assist wounded soldiers in war.

  3. Creation of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded

    February 17, 1863

    Creation of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, precursor to the ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The first National Red Cross Society is established in Württemberg, now part of Germany.

  4. The first Geneva Convention

    August , 1864

    The newly created Committee puts forward the first Geneva Convention, which is signed by 16 States. Officially named the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, the document’s 10 articles lay the foundation for neutral and impartial humanitarian action and call on warring parties to respect medical personnel. “Wounded or sick combatants, to whatever nation they may belong, shall be collected and cared for,” the Convention states.

  5. Four basic working principles

    January 1, 1875

    Movement founder Gustave Moynier speaks of four basic working principles which the Movement’s Societies must observe: foresight, solidarity, centralization and mutuality.

  6. The first set of principles

    January 1, 1921

    In the wake of the First World War, a first set of Fundamental Principles – impartiality, political, religious and economic independence, the universality of the Movement and the equality of its members – are incorporated into the statutes of the ICRC.

  7. The invasion of Poland

    September 1, 1939

    Second World War, this truly global conflict requires humanitarian assistance at an unprecedented scale. The war causes the greatest loss of civilian life ever and poses the greatest threat to the humanitarian principles. There is genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany, abuse of prisoners in prisoner-of-war camps in Europe and the Pacific, mass aerial bombardment and the first use of nuclear weapons.

  8. End of the Second World War

    May 8, 1945

    Second World War, this truly global conflict requires humanitarian assistance at an unprecedented scale. The war causes the greatest loss of civilian life ever and poses the greatest threat to the humanitarian principles. There is genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany, abuse of prisoners in prisoner-of-war camps in Europe and the Pacific, mass aerial bombardment and the first use of nuclear weapons.

  9. The principles and the National Societies

    January 1, 1946

    In the wake of the Second World War, the League of Red Cross Societies (now the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) affirms that the 1921 principles apply to National Societies worldwide.

  10. Geneva Conventions of 1949

    January 1, 1949

    The experience of the Second World War brings about the Geneva Conventions of 1949. While earlier conventions only protected wounded soldiers and prisoners of war, these conventions stipulate for the first time that specific protections be provided for civilians in international conflicts.

  11. Joint commission

    January 1, 1955

    Jean Pictet, a key author and architect of the ICRC’s work on the 1949 Geneva Conventions, considers what values and principles define the Movement. Following the publication of his book Red Cross Principles in 1955, the ICRC and the International Federation set up a joint commission to draw up a definitive set of operating principles.

  12. 20th International Conference

    January 1, 1965

    The Movement meets for its 20th International Conference in Vienna, Austria, and adopts a declaration that sets down the seven principles: Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality.

    The Fundamental Principles are applied in a wide range of conflict and natural disaster settings, from post-colonial wars of independence, to proxy wars between Cold War superpowers, to civil wars in all corners of the world.

The Fundamental Principles not only define the purpose and raison d’être of the humanitarian endeavour (humanity, impartiality) but also specify what should be the characteristics of the actor providing assistance and protection (neutral, independent, voluntary, united, and universal). For instance, neutrality is not a passive, defensive stance; it requires constant work aimed at being trusted and accepted by all in order to reach people in need. It is an “acting neutrality”, a means to an end. Furthermore, principles do not offer a comprehensive normative vision of the world. In that sense, the principles guiding humanitarian action do not form an ideology (as the use of the related word humanitarianism sometimes seems to imply); instead, they provide both an ethical framework and “tools for the job” for humanitarians. Both local and international actors alike can apply them. Used in combination, these principles are meant to guide the concrete action of humanitarian actors in a pragmatic and teleological – not dogmatic – way.


The Fundamental Principles were never intended as a dogma, but as a guide for concrete action following a hierarchical order and internal logic. The pyramid above represents this ethical, operational and institutional framework. © ICRC

In recent years, the British Red Cross has produced a series of case studies demonstrating the practical relevance of the Fundamental Principles, including one on Lebanon published in a previous edition of the Review. Amelia Kyazze Amelia Kyazze, Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser at the British Red Cross She has worked for the Red Cross Movement and NGOs since 1997, when she was first deployed to Albania and Kosovo. discusses the results of this work in “Walking the walk: Evidence of Principles in action from Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies”. Using evidence from nine different National Societies, she illustrates how the Fundamental Principles of the Movement are applied in today’s diverse contexts.

Hence the debate about humanitarian principles is a pragmatic one that may yield answers to sensitive operational dilemmas, such as: priority-setting in situations of overwhelming needs; fulfilling a commitment to humanity while taking into account the stark realities of power; building acceptance and a legacy trust at the local level, and consequently improve access for humanitarians on the ground; cutting through complex decision-making processes during crisis.

The ICRC – which is often considered purist in its strict adherence to the Fundamental Principles – decided to assess its own practice in this regard. In 2013–14, it conducted its own in-house study on the application of the Principles across several contexts, the challenges to such application, and the way in which the principles shaped operational decision-making. Pascal Daudin Pascal Daudin, Senior Policy Adviser at the ICRC Pascal Daudin is currently Senior Policy Adviser at the ICRC. After a short career as a freelance journalist, he joined the ICRC in 1985 and served in more than twenty different conflict situations including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Kuwait, Caucasus and Central Asia, holding positions of Line Manager and Protection Expert as well as managing projects on strategic HR reform. Between 2003 and 2007, he worked as Senior Analyst and Deputy Head of a counter-terrorism unit attached to the Swiss Ministry of Defence. In 2007, he was appointed Global Safety and Security Director for CARE International’s operations and institutional policy. In 2011, he returned to the ICRC as Senior Policy Adviser on humanitarian action-related matters. and Jérémie Labbé Jérémie Labbé, Head of the Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action project at the ICRC Jérémie Labbé is Head of the Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action project at the International Committee of the Red Cross (since July 2014). From 2010 to 2014, he developed a new programme on humanitarian affairs at the International Peace Institute in New York, and between 2003 and 2009, he worked with the ICRC both in its headquarters in Geneva and in different field missions. reflect on the main results of this internal study in “Applying the humanitarian principles: Reflecting on the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross.” For another insightful piece on the application of the principles in delicate operational settings, read Fiona Terry Fiona Terry, Independent researcher Fiona Terry is an independent researcher who recently completed studies for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sudan and Afghanistan. She holds a doctorate in international relations from the Australian National University, and is the author of Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2002). “The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: reasserting the neutrality of humanitarian action.”