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Will the principles dissolve in the global transformation agenda?


In recent years, new questions regarding the contemporary relevance of the principles have come from the parallel growth and diversification of the humanitarian sector and the broadening of the qualitative and quantitative expectations of the international community of humanitarian action.

While humanitarian principles have gained a broad acceptance and consensus across the humanitarian sector, the actors that compose it are not homogeneous and their interpretation of the principles may vary to a considerable degree. While the components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are bound by the Fundamental Principles, other organisations may choose to apply other guiding principles in their action, or interpret the four humanitarian principles differently.


Expert panel discussion on the application of the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in operational environments. The panel discussed the practical relevance of the principles, the challenges to their application, and the question of whether they should be 'measured' or 'assessed' so as to best allocate resources and prioritize responses (Geneva, February 2015).

Some claim that they act according to principles, but in reality may be unable or unwilling to do so. For instance, when the main motive of an organization is solidarity with a given group on political, ethnic or religious ground, the other party may perceive the organization as taking side with its enemy. By extension, all humanitarian actors may be perceived with suspicion if organizations’ claims to apply the principles are not demonstrated through their actions. In “Coming clean on neutrality and independence” Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, Executive Director Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop is Executive Director of HERE- Geneva, a humanitarian think-tank working to close the gap between policy and humanitarian practice. writes about the need to assess the actual application of humanitarian principles, in particular neutrality and independence, and suggests concrete, practical elements for doing so, such as standards for financial independence.

“Paradoxically, one reason why the principles are so difficult to implement is their success”, argue Daudin and Labbé in “Applying the humanitarian principles”. In their analysis, “these days, there are more and more agencies with competing interpretations of the principles. The ambitions of the sector have grown to include addressing not just the effects but also the causes of crises.” Accordingly, humanitarian actors are led to engage in a wider transformative agenda of the international community. The integrated approach developed by the UN began from classic peacekeeping and became a global transformation project that combines policing, stabilization, establishing the rule of law, carrying out development programmes and providing humanitarian aid. Many organisations have aligned with this broader agenda. This comprehensive response to conflict, combining political, social, economic and humanitarian objectives is perpetuated by and reflected in donor policy (e.g. a “whole-of-government approach”). It has been persuasively argued that such an approach brings an entirely different set of ethical goals and methodologies, which extend far beyond humanitarian ethics. This was recognised as problematic in the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP) 2012 report on the state of the “humanitarian system”, which stated:

“The findings highlight the on-going and uncomfortable stretching of humanitarian funds into spheres of activity on the edges of response work, including preparedness, disaster-risk reduction and resilience activities, on one side, and early recovery, infrastructure rehabilitation and the indefinite provision of basic services in the absence of a state-led alternative.”

In “Romancing principles and human rights – Are humanitarian principles salvageable?”, Antonio Donini Antonio Donini, Senior researcher Antonio Donini is a Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University and Research Associate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He works on issues relating to humanitarianism and the future of humanitarian action. He served for twenty-six years at the United Nations in research, evaluation and humanitarian capacities. His last post was as Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan (1999–2002). He is the main author of the edited volume The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action (Kumarian Press, London, 2012). and Stuart Gordon Stuart Gordon, Academic Dr Stuart Gordon is an academic in the International Development Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Prior to his appointment at LSE he was at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the UK Defence Academy. He has served in the UK Armed Forces as both a Regular and Reserve Officer, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During 2003 he was the Operations Director for the US/UK’s Iraq Humanitarian Operations Centre in Baghdad, and he subsequently co-authored the UK government’s Afghanistan “Helmand Road Map”. He specializes in the politics of conflict and humanitarian action. present the general critique of what they call the “new humanitarianism” (as opposed to humanitarian relief as practiced by the traditional principles-abiding organisations). They conclude that still, the best chances of gaining access to people in need today is through adherence to the traditional humanitarian principles. The ICRC’s Peter Maurer echoes this conclusion when he affirms: “our experience shows that emergency access to vulnerable populations in some of the most contested areas depends on the ability to isolate humanitarian goals from other transformative goals, be they economic, political, social or human rights-related.” The Safer Access Framework – a joint effort by ICRC, the International Federation and more than 50 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, to increase acceptance, security and access when assisting people in need – also acknowledges that it can “only be implemented by applying the Fundamental Principles”.

While the advantages of having diversity of international actors and modes of action are obvious, the questions of the broadening agenda of humanitarian action and of preserving the capacity of principled humanitarian action to operate in polarized crises free from other agendas, could be topics for discussion among humanitarian actors and at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.