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Principles guiding humanitarian action


The seven “Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement“ are the expression of a set of values and experiences distilled from over a century and a half of protecting the lives and dignity of people affected by conflict and disaster worldwide.

Officially proclaimed 50 years ago in Vienna, several of these humanitarian principles have been enshrined in United Nations resolutions, in State commitments and in pledges from numerous aid agencies, making them a rallying force in the humanitarian community and beyond. And yet, as ICRC President Peter Maurer Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC Peter Maurer has been President of the ICRC since 1 July 2012. In this position, his priorities include strengthening humanitarian diplomacy, engaging States and other actors for the respect of international humanitarian law, and improving the humanitarian response through innovation and new partnerships. said: “the concepts as well as practices of ‘Principled Humanitarian Action’ are increasingly being challenged in current conflicts.”


The evolving global environment in which humanitarian actors operate is posing profound challenges both in terms of complexity of major crises and their impact on affected people. Taking in consideration this environment, the ICRC, with its track record of a 150 years of humanitarian practice, has to consider how to address these challenges while remaining faithful to its humanitarian principles, notably, Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality and Independence.

The year of 2015, marked by the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Fundamental Principles as well as the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement), prompted several initiatives to study their contemporary practice and impact of these principles. As part of its contribution to this global discussion, the ICRC conducted a project entitled “Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action”, whose public facet consisted in a series of high-level public events and expert panel discussions, as well as a dedicated edition of the International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC or the Review). Within the Movement, a series of regional workshops were also conducted, with a view to strengthening the application of the Fundamental Principles. The main findings were then discussed at the 32nd International Conference.

Around the world, relief and protection programmes in favour of the populations affected by conflicts, other situations of violence and disasters are meant to be guided by principles. These principles distinguish the humanitarian response from other forms of aid. Building on the experience of humanitarian professionals, they provide humanitarian actors with a compass to navigate difficult choices such as the dilemmas related to priority setting in situations where needs exceed limited resources, or the tension between security of humanitarian workers and access to populations.

These principles have been constantly challenged and are now being tested in relation to phenomena such as: the typology, duration and magnitude of current crises; the political environments in which humanitarian actors operate and the evolution of the sector itself. What role have the principles played in humanitarian action? What are the main challenges that humanitarian actors face in upholding them in today’s crises and emergencies? What are the best practices in their application to contemporary field realities?

These examples are illustrations of the application of the principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality by three humanitarian actors. For the Médecins sans Frontière (MSF) hospital in Aden, it is about the struggle to maintain the neutrality of the hospital by keeping weapons out of the premises. For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), it is about the necessary independence from warring parties in order to provide humanitarian assistance in eastern Ukraine. The example from the British Red Cross is a telling testimony of at least three Fundamental Principles in action: impartiality in the provision of humanitarian aid according to the most pressing needs and not nationality or status, independence in taking autonomous decision when mapping the course of its humanitarian operations, and neutrality in avoiding to take side on the controversial aspects of the deeply politicized issue of migration, while taking a clear stand on the humanitarian imperative. Ultimately, all decisions above are motivated by the principle of humanity, the raison d’être of the humanitarian enterprise.

This e-briefing is intended as a multimedia resource that traces the latest developments in the contemporary debate on these principles. Far from having being limited to reaffirming their enduring relevance and far-reaching influence, this worldwide reflection also refined our mastery of the humanitarian principles as eminently pragmatic tools that, when applied judiciously on the ground, carry the power for more humanitarian effectiveness amidst the most challenging crises of our times.