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Can the principles be universal in a diverse and divided world?


The modern humanitarian endeavour is based on the affirmation that suffering has no borders, and that all human beings deserve minimum help in times of distress. “While people differ, human nature everywhere is the same and there is nothing more widespread than human suffering, to which all men are equally vulnerable and sensitive”, wrote Jean Pictet in his Commentaries.

As mentioned earlier, it is obvious that the values attached to charity, help and protection are deeply rooted in all cultures. Nonetheless, the universal nature of the principles has been constantly challenged throughout their history.


This film from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council looks at how arts and humanities academics are working with the ICRC to help refresh understanding on how principled humanitarian action is delivered, both in the past and today (September 2015).

Principles are often perceived as an expression of Western values, potentially offensive to or dominant over local cultures or religions as a new manifestation of post-colonial domination, undermining the sovereignty of the receiving countries. This is explained by the fact that the core body of the humanitarian enterprise has its historical origins in the West in the 19th century, at a time of Western domination and expansion. While local charities had long existed everywhere, the organization of international relief actions on a systematic basis clearly finds its origin in a given place and period of time. Still today, the majority of large humanitarian organisations have a strong European or American footprint. Thus, humanitarian principles can easily be conflated with other political or economic agendas. The West has historically and continuously been accused of seeking political and economic advantage while exporting democracy and human rights. New powers emerging in the field of international humanitarian action may also face, in their turn, a similar suspicion.

Surely the increased reference to and use of the principles by many organizations in recent decades reflect their success. Yet, amid the expansion and professionalization of the humanitarian sector over the past 20 years, the principles became a means of self-identification and, in consequence, have been increasingly invoked as a mantra. Observers have pointed at the resulting exclusionary effect, whereby “non-principled” actors are not considered to be “professional” or even “humanitarian”. The humanitarian community, which still largely consists of Western organizations, should take care that the principles remain a universal call for a shared humanity, one that is sensitive to – and compatible with – cultural differences.

While people differ, human nature everywhere is the same and there is nothing more widespread than human suffering, to which all men are equally vulnerable and sensitive.

- Jean Pictet

In the context of the growth and development of humanitarian organizations from all over the world, the Review wanted to provide a space for different perspectives, including those of faith-based humanitarian actors, to be presented. Ronald Ofteringer Ronald Ofteringer, Adviser to the Director of Operations at ICRC Ronald Ofteringer is Adviser to the director of operations for global affairs at the International Committee of the Red Cross. and Abdulfatah Said Mohamed Abdulfatah Said Mohamed, Senior adviser Abdulfatah Said Mohamed is Senior Adviser to the Cordoba Foundation in Geneva. give an overview of the “Islamic voices in the debate on humanitarian principles” and an account of the many initiatives which have been taking place in recent years to develop a code of conduct for Muslim humanitarian NGOs, and which reflect the perception that the current frameworks of reference for humanitarian action mainly emanate from the West. They highlight the relevance and importance of genuine dialogue between humanitarian actors of different backgrounds to achieve a common understanding and inclusive ownership of the principles. In “Faith inspiration in a secular world” Lucy V. Salek Lucy V. Salek, Senior policy adviser Lucy V. Salek is the Senior Policy Adviser on Conflict Transformation for Islamic Relief Worldwide, for whom she developed Working in Conflict: A Faith Based Toolkit for Islamic Relief in 2014. challenges what she describes as the exclusively secularist paradigm in the mainstream concepts of relief and development. She draws on the research of Islamic Relief Worldwide to present the Islamic maqasid al-Shari’ah framework as an example of how faith-based approaches can provide a basis for humanitarian action that is relevant to Islamic communities, as well as complementary to – and even compatible with – humanitarian principles. In his Opinion Note, Mohd Hisham Mohd Kamal examines neutral humanitarian action during armed conflicts from an Islamic perspective. Finally, Kathryn Kraft Kathryn Kraft, Lecturer Kathryn Kraft is Lecturer in International Development at the University of East London, where she teaches and researches on faith and humanitarianism, storytelling in conflict transformation, and NGO management. She has worked with numerous faith-based and other humanitarian agencies, advising local partners in the context of emergency and disaster response. discusses in “Faith and impartiality in humanitarian response” the case study of Lebanese evangelical churches providing food aid to Syrian refugees, and how these churches’ efforts to respect impartiality.

The Review interviewed Ma Qiang, executive vice-president of the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Red Cross at the time, to better understand the specificities of the Chinese perspective on the Fundamental Principles. This conversation is critical at a time when Chinese disaster response organizations are increasingly involved in international crises. China, being one of the most disaster-affected countries in the world, has extensive experience in responding to crises on its own soil, which can be put to use globally. Recently, China has also been engaging in bilateral cooperation with States but will the Chinese government choose to engage with – and support – non-governmental actors, and more specifically, independent humanitarian actors?

Today, all too often, humanitarian action still creates an intrinsically unequal relationship between the donor and the recipient of assistance. Aid generates tensions, especially when the provider of aid adopts a paternalistic attitude or violates its own essence when the aid is accompanied by abuses of its position of power. Unpacking the principle of humanity also means to prevent such dangerous drifts; it clarifies that genuine gesture, i.e. that respect of dignity should be the only real driver of aid. However, while humanity is the most uncritically and probably universally accepted humanitarian principle, it is not without controversy. In “Unpacking the principle of humanity”, Larissa Fast Larissa Fast, Science and Technology Policy Fellow Larissa Fast is Science and Technology Policy Fellow (2014–2016) with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is author of Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). defines this “essential principle” (as Jean Pictet calls it), uncovers its inherent tensions and makes a timely call for its operationalization through a series of practical measures.

In the current climate of radicalization, the contestation of the universal nature of the humanitarian principles can take the form of an outright rejection of the essential principle of humanity by armed extremist groups or members of marauding militias. Hostage taking and direct attacks against humanitarian workers prevent humanitarian actors from operating in vast areas of the Middle East, the Sahel or Central Africa. This is a sad fact but it has nothing to do with incompatibility between religious beliefs or political/ ideological causes as such, and the principles guiding humanitarian action. In fact, religious leaders have openly refuted such practice. In 2014, in an open letter to the head of the Islamic State, Islamic scholars of different schools of thought highlighted how some of the basic tenets of humanity are part of Islam, recalling for instance that: it is forbidden in Islam to kill “emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers”.

Far from discrediting the humanitarian principles, these challenges may well actually reinforce the need for adherence to those principles. Nonetheless, the questioning around the universal nature and value of the principles stresses the need to continue the dialogue between faith-based and secular actors, across different cultures, religions and State practices on the various understandings of humanitarian concepts.