Skip to main content Accessibility help

Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action

  • Thomas G. Weiss


The tragedies of the past decade have led to an identity crisis among humanitarians. Respecting traditional principles of neutrality and impartiality and operating procedures based on consent has created as many problems as it has solved. A debate is raging between “classicists,” who believe that humanitarian action can be insulated from politics, and various “political humanitarians,” who are attempting to use politics to improve relief and delivery in war zones

This essay examines the pros and cons of impartial versus political humanitarianism and differing approaches across a spectrum of actors, including the classicists, led by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who believe that humanitarian action can and should be completely insulated from politics; the “minimalists,” who “aim to do no harm” in delivering relief; the “maximalists,” who have a more ambitious agenda of employing humanitarian action as part of a comprehensive strategy to transform conflict; and the “solidarists,” exemplified by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), who choose sides and abandon neutrality and impartiality as well as reject consent as a prerequisite for intervention. The essay argues that there is no longer any need to ask whether politics and humanitarian action intersect. The real question is how this intersection can be managed to ensure more humanized politics and more effective humanitarian action.



Hide All

1 Neutrality and impartiality are important because they are central to the humanitarian ethos and give rise to much controversy. Consent is emphasized here because nonintervention in domestic affairs is the glue of international relations, and consent guides virtually all UN actions with the exception of Chapter VII coercion. See Harroff-Tavel, Marion, “Neutrality and Impartiality: The Importance of These Principles for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the Difficulties Involved in Applying Them,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 273 (1989), pp. 536–52. See also Sandoz, Yves, “The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Law of Armed Conflict Today,” International Peacekeepitrg 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 8699.

2 Pictet, Jean,“The Fundamental Principlesof the Red Cross,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 210 (1979), pp. 130–40, quote at p. 135, and Development and Principles of International Hmnanitarian Law (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 198 S). Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, universality, voluntary service, and unity are principles of “humanitarian action” (guiding relief and protection of rights) as distinct from principles of “international humanitarian law” (for example, the distinctions between combatant and noncombatant), which are not the subject of this inquiry.

3 Duffield, Mark, “The Political Economy of Internal War: Asset Transfer and the Internationalisation of Public Welfare in the Horn of Africa,” in Macrae, Joanna and Zwi, Anthony, eds., War and Hunger: Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies (London: Zed Books, 1994), pp. 5069. For a discussion of humanitarian tragedies as growth opportunities see, for example, Maren, Michael, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (New York: Free Press, 1997). See also Keen, David, The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), Adelphi Paper 320; and Jean, Francois and Rufin, Christopher, eds., Economies des Guewes Civiles (Paris: Hachette, 1996).

4 The debate was initiated by de Waal, Alex and Omaar, Rakiya, Humanitarianism Unbound? Current Dilemmas Facing Multi-Mandate Relief Operations in Political Emergencies (London: African Rights, 1994), Discussion Paper No. 5.

5 Steering Committee, “Background Paper: Humanitarian and Political Action: Key Issues and Priorities for a Concerted Strategy,” Report ori the Second Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum, 5–7 June 1998 (Geneva: ICRC, 1998), p. 1, hereafter Report Second Wolfserg.

6 Sommaruga, Corneiio, “Concluding Remarks,” Report Second Wolfsberg, p. 3.

7 Perrin, Pierre, “The Impact of Humanitarian Aid on Conflict Development,” International Review of tbe Red Cross, no. 323 (June 1998), p. 332.

8 Moore, Jonathan, ed., Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littkfield, 1998).

9 Forsythe, David P., Humanitarian Politics: The International Committee of the Red Cross (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 3.

10 Ogata, Sadako, “Keynote Address,” Report Second Wolfsberg, P. 1.

11 Natsios, Andrew, “Commentary,” Ethics & International Affairs 11 (1997), p. 133.

12 Steering Committee, “Background Paper,” P. 4.

22 Duffie]d, Mark, “The Symphony of the Damned: Racial Discourse, Complex Political Emergencies and Humanitarian Aid,” Disasters 20 (September 1996), p. 191.

23 Macraq, JoannaThe Death of Humanitarianism? An Anatomy of the Attack,” Disasters 22 (December 1998), p. 316. This is part of a special issue entided “The Emperor's New Clothes: Charting the Erosion of Humanitarian Principles,” p. 7.

24 Chr. Michelsen Institute, Humanitarian Assistance and Conflict (Bergen, Norway: Chr. Michelsen Institute, 1997), p. 3; this publication contains a good review of the literature of the 1990s.

25 See Daniel, Donald C. F. and Hayes, Bradd C., “Securing Observance of UN Mandates through the Employment of Military Force,” Itrterrratiottal Peacekeeping 3 (Winter 1996), pp. 105–25; and Annan, Kofi, “Challenges of the New Peacekeeping,” in Otunnu, Olara A. and Doyle, Michael W., eds., Peacemaking and Peacekeeping for tbe New Century (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), pp. 169–87.

26 Slim, Hugo, “International Humanitarianism's Engagement with Civil War in the 1990s: A Glance at Evolving Practice and Theory,” a briefing paper for ActionAid UK, document dated 19 December 1997, p. 16.

27 See Weiss, Thomas G. and Collins, Cindy, Humanitarian Challenges and Intervention: World Politics and the Dilemmas of Help (Boulder: Westview, 1996), pp. 97134.

28 Wiener, Myron, “The Clash of Norms: Dilemmas in Refugee Policies,” Journul of Refugee Studies 11 (1998), pp. 121. See also Smith, Dan, “Interventionist Dilemmas and Justice,” in McDermott, Anthony, ed., Hrmurrtitariats Force (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 1997), pp. 1339, especially pp. 29–31.

29 Nagle, Thomas, Moral Questions (New York: Cambridge University press, 1991), p. 74.

30 Pictet, , “The Fundamental Principles,” p. 136; and Leader, Nicholas, “Proliferating Principles or How to Sup with the Devil Without Getting Eaten,” Disasters 22 (December 1998), p. 305.

31 The author is grateful to Charles Keely for this thought.

32 ICRC founder Henry Dunant's efforts could be contrasted with the more circumscribed assessment of his Swiss compatriot Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who earlier had emphasized the importance of kin, kith, and kerx “It appears that the feeling of humanity evaporates and grows feeble in embracing all mankind, and that we cannot be affected by the calamities of Tartary or Japan, in the same manner as we are by those of European nations.”Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, “A Discourse on Political Economy,” The Social Corstract and Discourses (New York: Dutton, 1950), p. 301 See also Sherman, Nancy, “Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention,” Ethics & Itttematiotsal Affairs 12 (1998), pp. 103–19.

33 Rowlands, Dave and Carment, Davjd, “Moral Hazard and Conflict Intervention,” in Wolfson, Murray, ed., The Political Economy of War and Peace (The Hague: Kluwer, forthcoming), p. 2, emphasis in original.

34 Ignatieff, , The Warrior's Honor, P. 8.

35 Prins, Gwyn, “Modern Warfare and Humanitarian Action,” keynote lecture to an ECHO-ICRC conference entitled “Humanitarian Action: Perception and Security,” Lisbon, March 27–28, 1998, p. 6.

36 Minear, and Weiss, , Humanitarian Action in Times of War, P. 37.

37 See, for example, Macrae, , “The Death of Humanitarianism? An Anatomy of the Attack”; and Cindy Collins, “Critiques of Humanitarianism and Humanitarian Action,” in Humanitarian Coordination: Lessons Learned

38 de Waal, Alex, Famitie Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997), p. 145.

39 see, for example, Seybolt, Taylor B., “The Myth of Neutrality,” Peace Review 8 (1996), pp. S2127; and Betts, Richard, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention,” Foreign Affairs 73 (1994), pp. 2033.

40 Chopra, Jarat and Weiss, Thomas G., “Sovereignty Is No Longer Sacrosanct: Codifying Humanitarian Intervention,” Ethics & International Affairs 6 (1992), pp. 95118.

41 “Objectives and Agenda of the Forum,” Report First Wolfsberg, P. 1.

42 Rieff, , “The Humanitarian Illusion” p. 30.

43 Steering Committee, “Background Paper,” p. 4.

44 “Introductory Address by Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga,” Report First Wolfsberg, p. 3.

45 Hutchinson, John F., Chwnpions of Charity: War and the Rise of tbe Red Cross (Boulder: Westview, 1996).

46 Destexhe, Alain, “Foreword,” in Jean, Franqois, ed., Populations in Danger 1995 (London: Médecins Sans Frontières, 1995), pp. 1314.

47 Roethlisberger, Eric, “Faced with Today's and Tomorrow's Challenges, Should the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement Rethink Its Code of Ethics?” speech of March 20, 1998, p. 2; and “Guiding Principles on the Right to Humanitarian Assistance,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 297 (November-December 1993), pp. 519–25.

48 Forsythe, , Humanitarian politics, P. 234.

49 Anderson, Mary B., Do No Harm: Supporting Local Capacities for Peace Through Aid (Cambridge, Mass.: Collaborative for Development Action, 1996).

50 Surhke, Astri and Newland, Kathleen, “Humanitarian Assistance in the Midst of Armed Conflict,” paper presented for a conference on “The Evolution of International Humanitarian Response in the 1990s,” Carnegie Endowment and the Gdman Foundation, Yulee, Florida, April 23–26, 1998, p. 2; and Bryans, Michael, Jones, Bruce D., and Stein, Janice Gross, Mean limes: Humanitarian Action in Complex Political Emergencies-Stark Choices, Cruel Dilemmas (Toronto: Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, 1999), p. vi.

51 see Anderson, Mav B. and Woodrow, Peter J., Rising from the Ashes: Development Strategies in Times of Disaster (Boulder: Westview, 1989); and McAllister, IanSustaining Relief with Development (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1993).

52 See Hendrickson, Dylan, “Humanitarian Action in Protracted Crises: The New Relief 'Agenda' and Its Limits,” RRN Network Paper 25 (London: ODI, April 1998).

53 “Concluding remarks by Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga,” Report First Wolfsberg, p. 2.

54 Development Assistance us a Means of Conflict Prevention (OS1O: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, February 1998), p. 14.

55 Duffield, Mark, Aid PolicY and Post-Modern Conflict: A Critical Review (Birmingham, UK: School of Public Policy, 1998), Occasional Paper 19, p. 3.

56 See Development Assistance Committee, Policy Statement on Conflict, Peace and Developrnerrt Co-operation on the Threshold of the 21st Century (Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1997).

57 Boyce, James K. and Pastor, Manuel Jr., “Aid for Peace: Can International Financial Institutions Help Prevent Conflict?” World Policy Journal 15 (Summer 1998), p. 42.

58 Cairns, Edmund, A Safer Future: Reducing the Human Cost of War (Oxford: Oxfam Publications, 1997), p. 94.

59 Herbst, Jeffrey, Securing peace in Africa (Cambridge, Mass.: World Peace Foundation, 1998), WPF Reports no. 17, p.10.

60 “Review of the Capacity of the United Nations System for Humanitarian Assistance: Report of the Secretary-General,” document E/1997/98, July 10, 1997, para. 6.

61 deCourten, Jean, “ICRC Statement on Security Environment,” Geneva, draft presented at the Humanitarian Liaison Working Group, 24 April 1997, p. 2. For a discussion against the use of force from the classicist perspective, see Palwankar, Umesh, ed., Symposium on Humanitarian Action and Peacekeeping Operations (Geneva: ICRC, 1994).

* For their thoughtful suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this essay, I would like to thank David P. Forsythe, S. Neil MacFarlane, Ian McAllister, Larry Minear, and Peter Uvin, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, for having challenged me to develop these ideas for the Second Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum, June 5–7, 1998. Responsibility for the views expressed and any remaining errors in fact or interpretation are mine.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action

  • Thomas G. Weiss


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.