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Can principles stand the test of today’s armed conflicts?


The application of the humanitarian principles by humanitarian actors is a constant challenge and does not always guarantee the access, security and capacity needed to make a significant difference in the lives of people in need. The radicalization generated by armed conflict puts the principles to their most severe test.

At the same time, it is in situations of armed conflicts that strict obedience to the principles is the most relevant insofar as it can create the non-political and neutral space needed to care for those who are in dire need of life-saving assistance. Responding to situations of natural or technological disasters generally does not create the same political pressure on humanitarian actors.

Direct attacks against medical and humanitarian personnel and volunteers fare among the most extreme and severe challenges, but they are only one of several that humanitarian actors fear and deal with in their day-to-day work. Parties to the conflict instrumentalize humanitarian aid to pursue political objectives, trading for some political gain what should be their non-negotiable obligations to the populations under international humanitarian law. When States engage in humanitarian assistance as part of a strategy of “winning hearts and minds”, this may lead to dangerous amalgamations between political agendas and the humanitarian imperative in the perception of local communities and armed opposition groups. Ultimately, this might lead to more intense fighting, more victims and more obstructions for humanitarian actors who want to access people in need. Similarly, if humanitarian engagement with armed opposition groups is criminalized, this reduces the space within which neutral and impartial humanitarian action can take place.


Should militaries be involved in providing humanitarian assistance in conflict zones? This was the question at the heart of a debate co-hosted by the ICRC and the Centre for Military and Security Law (CMSL) at the Australian National University in Canberra (November 2015).

Several contributions in the Review issue analyze the range of pressures on neutral, independent and 
impartial humanitarian action that States and non-State armed groups can create in times of conflicts and other situations of violence: in “A matter of principle(s): The legal effect of impartiality and neutrality on States as 
humanitarian actors”, Kubo Mačák Kubo Mačák, Lecturer in law Dr Kubo Mačák is Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter. He holds a DPhil in law from the University of Oxford (Somerville College). discusses the key question of whether the principles of impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian action are legally binding, focussing on “States as humanitarian actors”. In “Humanitarian principles put to the test: Challenges to humanitarian action during decolonization” Andrew Thompson Andrew Thompson, Professor of modern history Andrew Thompson is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter and Director of Exeter’s Centre for Imperial and Global History, a Council Member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and an Honorary Professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. analyzes the challenges to the Fundamental Principles during and after decolonization, a period when the character of conflict changed and the principles were politicized, notably due to colonial counter-insurgency. Looking at the context of Australia today, Phoebe Wynn-Pope Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Director of international humanitarian law Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope is Director of International Humanitarian Law and Movement Relations at Australian Red Cross. She completed her doctoral thesis in international law at the University of Melbourne. , Yvette Zegenhagen Yvette Zegenhagen, National manager of international humanitarian law Yvette Zegenhagen is National Manager of International Humanitarian Law, Movement Relations and Advocacy at Australian Red Cross. In this role she is responsible for the overall operations of the Australian Red Cross IHL programme. and Fauve Kurnadi Fauve Kurnadi, International humanitarian haw coordinator Fauve Kurnadi is an International Humanitarian Law Coordinator for Australian Red Cross. She is studying for a master of public and international law at the University of Melbourne. analyse the present threat to neutral, independent impartial humanitarian action that counter-terrorism legislation can represent.