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Applying the humanitarian principles: Reflecting on the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Jérémie Labbé and Pascal Daudin


Applying the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in a relevant manner in concrete operational settings is a constant challenge for humanitarian organizations. Bound by this set of norms, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has incrementally developed over the years a rational framework that allows its leadership and staff on the ground to act according to these principles while developing adapted solutions and pragmatic approaches. This article begins by describing the history and development of the humanitarian principles; it then explains how the strategic choices of the ICRC are informed by these principles, and what the consequences are for the organization's capacity to act in favour of victims of armed conflicts.



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1 See, in particular, Minear, Larry, “The Theory and Practice of Neutrality: Some Thoughts on the Tensions”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 81, No. 1, 1999, pp. 6371; Nicholas Leader, The Politics of Principle: The Principles of Humanitarian Action in Practice, Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Report No. 2, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London, March 2000; Humanitarian Practice Network, Humanitarian Exchange, No. 25: Neutrality, HPG, ODI, London, December 2003; Thürer, Daniel, “Dunant's Pyramid: Thoughts on the ‘Humanitarian Space’”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 89, No. 865, 2007, pp. 4761; Antonio Donini, Larissa Fast, Greg Hansen, Simon Harris, Larry Minear, Tasneem Mowjee and Andrew Wilder, Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Final Report. The State of the Humanitarian Enterprise, Feinstein International Center, Medford, MA, March 2008; Caritas Europa, Bridging the Gap between Policy and Practice: The European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid and Humanitarian Principles, October 2011; Hugo Slim and Miriam Bradley, Principled Humanitarian Action and Ethical Tensions in Multi-Mandate Organizations, study commissioned by World Vision, March 2013; Ingrid Macdonald and Angela Valenza, Tools for the Job: Supporting Principled Humanitarian Action, Norwegian Refugee Council and HPG, ODI, October 2012; Yulia Dyukova and Pauline Chetcuti, Humanitarian Principles in Conflict. Ensuring Humanitarian Principles are Respected in Armed Conflicts and Other Situations of Violence: ACF's Experience and Position, Action contre la Faim, member of the ACF International Network, December 2013.

2 Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss have stated that “for many the ICRC's definition of humanitarianism is the gold standard: the independent, neutral and impartial provision of relief to victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters”. Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss, Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread, Routledge, New York, 2011, p. 9.

3 The other three Fundamental Principles are voluntary service, unity and universality. These are specific to the Movement and, for this reason, are not extensively discussed in the present article.

4 This study resulted in an internal report entitled “Snapshot of ICRC Application of Fundamental Principles”, October 2014.

5 Peter Walker and Daniel Maxwell, Shaping the Humanitarian World, Routledge, New York, 2009; M. Barnett and T. Weiss, above note 2; Katherine Davies, Continuity, Change and Contest: Meanings of “Humanitarian” from the “Religion of Humanity” to the Kosovo War, HPG, ODI, London, August 2012; Jérémie Labbé, Rethinking Humanitarianism: Adapting to Twenty-First Century Challenges, International Peace Institute, New York, November 2012.

6 Henry Dunant, A Memory of Solferino, ICRC, Geneva, 1862.

7 UNGA Res. 46/182, 19 December 1991. This resolution stipulates that “[h]umanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality”. The principle of independence was not recognized as a guiding principle for the provision of humanitarian assistance until 2003, in UNGA Res. 58/114, 5 February 2004.

8 K. Davies, above note 5, p. 1.

9 Jean Pictet, The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross: Commentary, ICRC, Geneva, 1979, available at: (all internet references were accessed in June 2015).

10 Ibid.

11 The Geneva Conventions employ a version of the Martens clause in their denunciation clauses (common Article 63/62/142/158) to make clear that if they denounce the Conventions, the parties will remain bound by the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, the laws of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. Geneva Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 31 (entered into force 21 October 1950), Art. 63; Geneva Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea of 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 85 (entered into force 21 October 1950), Art. 62; Geneva Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 135 (entered into force 21 October 1950), Art. 142; Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 287 (entered into force 21 October 1950), Art. 158. See Theodor Meron, “The Martens Clause, Principles of Humanity, and Dictates of Public Conscience”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 94, No. 1, 2000, pp. 78–89. See also Jean Pictet, Development and Principles of International Humanitarian Law, Martinus Nijhoff Dordrecht, and Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva, 1985.

12 Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, on non-international armed conflicts. Common Article 9/9/9/10, which applies to international armed conflicts, stipulates that “the provisions of the present Convention constitute no obstacle to the humanitarian activities which the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other impartial humanitarian organization may … undertake” (emphasis added).

13 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 1125 UNTS 3, 8 June 1977 (entered into force 7 December 1978) (AP I), Art. 70; and confirmed in nearly identical wording in Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 1125 UNTS 609, 8 June 1977 (entered into force 7 December 1978) (AP II), Art. 18.

14 As of 28 January 2015, 196 States have ratified the Geneva Conventions, making them essentially universally ratified.

15 Jean Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, Vol. 1: Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, ICRC, Geneva, 1952, p. 109.

16 Kate Mackintosh, “The Principles of Humanitarian Action in International Humanitarian Law”, Study 4, in The Politics of Principle: The Principles of Humanitarian Action in Practice, HPG Report No. 5, ODI, London, March 2000, p. 13.

17 International Court of Justice, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), Judgment, ICJ Reports 1986, para. 243 (emphasis added).

18 For a more in-depth discussion on contemporary challenges to humanitarian action, see McGoldrick, Claudia and Daudin, Pascal, “The Future of Humanitarian Action”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 884, 2011.

19 See, for example, Jean-Marc Flükiger, Nouvelles guerres et théorie de la guerre juste, Infolio Éditions, Gollion, 2011; and Michael Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue” (1994), in Michael Walzer, Arguing about War, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2004.

20 Regis Debray, L'Emprise, Gallimard, Paris, 2000.

21 See, for example, Jacques Pous, De Gandhi à Fanon, un religieux face à la guerre d'Algérie, Golias Éditions, Villeurbanne, 2012. For a critique of humanitarian principles per se, see Weiss, Thomas G., “Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action”, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 1, March 1999, pp. 122.

22 Jean-Hervé Bradol, “The Sacrificial International Order”, in Fabrice Weissman (ed.), In the Shadow of “Just Wars”: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action, Cornell University Press, New York, 2004, p. 6.

23 The goal of jus in bello (law in war) is to limit the suffering caused by war by providing, to the extent possible, protection and assistance to the victims. It deals with the reality of conflict without taking into account the justifications for or legality of the use of force. Conversely, jus ad bellum (law on the use of force) determines the legality of the use of force.

24 On the criminalization of aid and the impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action, see Modirzadeh, Naz K., Lewis, Dustin A. and Bruderlein, Claude, “Humanitarian Engagement under Counter-Terrorism: A Conflict of Norms and the Emerging Policy Landscape”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 883, 2011, pp. 623647; and Kate Mackintosh and Patrick Duplat, Study on the Impact of Donor Counter-Terrorism Measures on Principled Humanitarian Action, independent study commissioned by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Norwegian Refugee Council, July 2013. See also the article by Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Yvette Zegenhagen and Fauve Kurdani in this issue of the Review.

25 See the article by Stuart Gordon and Antonio Donini in this issue of the Review.

26 The Fundamental Principles were adopted at the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross. The States party to the Geneva Conventions attended alongside the components of the Movement. Furthermore, Article 81 of AP I stipulates: “The Parties to the conflict shall grant to their respective Red Cross … organizations the facilities necessary for carrying out their humanitarian activities in favour of the victims of the conflict, in accordance with the provisions of the Conventions and this Protocol and the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross as formulated by the International Conferences of the Red Cross” (emphasis added).

27 See, for example, European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, 2008/C 25/01, Art. 2.1; Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, 2012/C 326/01, Art. 214.2; and Economic Community of West African States, Humanitarian Policy, March 2012, available at:

28 Maurice Tournier, “Humanitaire est-il apolitique de naissance?”, Mots, No. 65: L'humanitaire en discours, March 2001, pp. 136–145.

29 Martin Hollis, “Is Universalism Ethnocentric?”, in Christian Joppke and Steven Lukes (eds), Multicultural Questions, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.

30 See, for example, Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Mariner Books, New York, 2005.

31 See, for example, Jasmine Moussa, Ancient Origins, Modern Actors: Defining Arabic Meanings of Humanitarianisms, HPG, ODI, London, November 2014. See also Hanna B. Krebs, Responsibility, Legitimacy, Morality: Chinese Humanitarianism in Historical Perspective, HPG, ODI, London, September 2014; Andrea Binder and Björn Conrad, China's Potential Role in Humanitarian Assistance, Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin, 2009.

32 See, for example, Ronald Ofteringer, “La dialectique de l'image, de l'acceptation et du travail humanitaire dans les situations de conflit et de violence organisée”, in Caroline Abu-Sada (ed.), Dans l'oeil des autres: Perception de l'action humanitaire et de MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières, Editions Antipodes, Paris, 2011. See also the article by Ronald Ofteringer and Abdulfatah Mohamed in this issue of the Review.

33 Fiona Terry, Research Project on the ICRC Practice of Neutrality, internal document, ICRC, 2009. Some of the findings of this study were also discussed in Terry, Fiona, “The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: Reasserting the Neutrality of Humanitarian Action”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 881, 2011, pp. 173188.

34 See the “key findings of consultations” section of the report for the workshop on the Fundamental Principles held in conjunction with the 2013 Council of Delegates, a meeting gathering all components of the Movement that takes place every two years: Council of Delegates, “Outline of Workshop 1 – Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent”, CD/13/WS1, 2013, available at:

35 Sorcha O'Callaghan and Leslie Leach, Principles in Action in Lebanon, British Red Cross, ICRC and Lebanese Red Cross, London, 2012; Sorcha O'Callaghan and Jane Backhurst, Principles in Action in Somalia, British Red Cross and Somali Red Crescent Society, London, 2013. These two reports are available at: See also O'Callaghan, Sorcha and Leach, Leslie, “The Relevance of Fundamental Principles to Operations: Learning from Lebanon”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 95, No. 890, 2013, p. 302.

36 Pierre Krähenbühl, “There Are No ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ Civilians in Syria – We Must Help All Who Need Aid”, The Guardian, 3 June 2013.

37 Interview with François Bugnon, Magazine Croix-Rouge Croissant-Rouge, No. 1, 2015.

38 Michael Barnett, “Humanitarianism Transformed”, in Michael Barnett (ed.), The International Humanitarian Order, Routledge, London, 2010.

39 There is no universally accepted definition for humanitarian action, but, traditionally, it is supposed to be of short duration and limited to covering basic needs. “Humanitarian assistance is the assistance and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies”: Oliver Buston and Kerry Smith, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, Development Initiatives, Bristol, 2013, p. 11.

40 Jennifer C. Rubenstein, Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015.

41 Hugo Slim, “Global Welfare: A Realistic Expectation for the International Humanitarian System?”, in John Mitchell, ALNAP Review of Humanitarian Action: Evaluation Utilization, ODI, London, 2006.

42 Charny, Joel R., “Upholding Humanitarian Principles in an Effective Integrated Response”, Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2004, pp. 1320.

43 Victoria Metcalfe, Alison Giffen and Samir Elhawary, UN Integration and Humanitarian Space: An Independent Study Commissioned by the UN Integration Steering Group, HPG, ODI, and Stimson Center, London, December 2011.

44 Ibid.

45 Peter Maurer, “Humanitarian Diplomacy and Principled Humanitarian Action”, speech delivered at La Maison de la Paix, Geneva, 2 October 2014, available at: This speech is also reproduced in this issue of the Review.

46 See for example, The Red Cross and Red Crescent's Principled Approach to Innovation, American Red Cross, July 2015, available at:; Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom, Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art, OCHA Policy and Study Series No. 009, 2014.

47 Patrick Meier, Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2015. See also Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, The Politics of New Technologies, Routledge, New York, 2015.

48 It is commonly acknowledged that, throughout history, there have always been attempts at manipulating and instrumentalizing humanitarian assistance and its guiding principles for political aims. See, for example, Antonio Donini (ed.), The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, Kumarian Press, Sterling, VA, 2012.

49 A recently adopted ICRC policy on the organization's role in situations of violence below the threshold of armed conflict recognizes, for instance, the limits of the ICRC's “neutral intermediary” role in situations in which violence is predominantly criminal. See ICRC, “The International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC's) Role in Situations of Violence Below the Threshold of Armed Conflict – Policy Document, February 2014”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96, No. 893, 2014, pp. 275304, available at:

50 Donini, Antonio, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Integration or Independence of Humanitarian Action?”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 92, No. 880, 2010, pp. 156, 152.

51 F. Terry, “The ICRC in Afghanistan”, above note 33.

52 A concept developed by the French jurist Mario Bettati that can be translated to “right of humanitarian intervention” and which argues that States have a right to interfere in another State's internal affairs in case of massive violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. See Mario Bettati, Le droit d'ingérence: Mutation de l'ordre international, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1996.

53 The Responsibility to Protect – known as R2P – refers to the obligation of States toward their populations and toward all populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. The three pillars of the responsibility to protect, as stipulated in the Outcome Document of the 2005 United Nations World Summit (A/RES/60/1, paras 138–140) and formulated in the Secretary-General's 2009 Report (A/63/677) on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect are:

  • The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;

  • The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;

  • The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

54 See, for example, Fabrice Weissman (ed.), In the Shadow of “Just Wars”: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action, Cornell University Press, New York, 2004; Pommier, Bruno, “The Use of Force to Protect Civilians and Humanitarian Action: The Case of Libya and Beyond”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 884, 2011, pp. 10631083.

55 ICRC, above note 4.

56 Max Weber described this dilemma as two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims. An organization can either be oriented to an ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik), meaning that it is accountable for the foreseeable consequences of its actions, or to an ethic of conviction (Gesinnungsethik), in which it is accountable only for applying its policy. See Max Weber, Le savant et le politique, Plon, 10/18, Paris, 1995.

57 Hugo Slim, “Doing the Right Thing: Relief Agencies, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Responsibility in Political Emergencies and War”, in Hugo Slim, Essays in Humanitarian Action, Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, University of Oxford, 2012 (e-book).

58 The cluster system was adopted as part of the United Nations Humanitarian Reform of 2005. The cluster approach coordinates humanitarian groups by sector, e.g. health, shelter or nutrition. See “Cluster Coordination” on the OCHA website, available at:

59 See, for example, Labbé, Jérémie and Boutellis, Arthur, “Peace Operations by Proxy: Implications for Humanitarian Action of UN Peacekeeping Partnerships with Non-UN Security Forces”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 95, No. 891/892, 2013, pp. 539559.

60 This was the case in Myanmar, for example, in a context of sectarian violence. Humanitarian assistance given to the Muslim minority generated resentment against humanitarian organizations among the Buddhist majority communities, even though the latter were less in need. See Dana MacLean, “Analysis: Myanmar's Rakhine State – Where Aid Can Do harm”, IRIN, 3 July 2013, available at:

61 F. Terry, Research Project, above note 33, p. 37.

62 As this quote shows, it is not the strategies for improving communities’ resilience that could potentially impact neutrality, but rather the modalities under which these strategies are implemented that can make them seem political. H. Slim and M. Bradley, above note 1, p. 7.

63 Ibid.

64 For a discussion of the work carried out in such situations and the related challenges, see: ICRC, above note 49.

65 ICRC, The ICRC: Its Mission and Its Work, Geneva, March 2009, p. 6, available at:

66 J. Labbé and A. Boutellis, above note 59.

67 ICRC, above note 65, pp. 14–17.

68 F. Terry, “The ICRC in Afghanistan”, above note 33.

69 For more information on the ICRC's confidential approach, see Memorandum, “The ICRC's Privilege of Non-Disclosure of Confidential Information”, in this issue of the Review.

70 See HPG, Humanitarian Advocacy in Darfur: The Challenge of Neutrality, HPG Policy Brief No. 28, ODI, London, October 2007. This policy brief highlights the tensions and links between advocacy and neutrality in Darfur.

71 For an in-depth description of the role of the ICRC in such contexts, including a brief discussion on the ICRC's neutrality, see ICRC, above note 49.

72 O'Callaghan, Sorcha and Leach, Leslie, “The Relevance of Fundamental Principles to Operations: Learning from Lebanon”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 95, No. 890, 2013, p. 302.

73 ICRC, “Algeria: International Colloquium on Emir Abdelkader and IHL”, News Release No. 13/98, 27 May 2013, available at:

74 ICRC, “Somalia: Using Traditional Law in Dialogues with Armed Groups”, 10 November 2014, available at: A similar exercise was conducted in the Pacific region: ICRC, Under the Protection of the Palm: Wars of Dignity in the Pacific, May 2009, available at:

75 Peter Maurer, “At a Crossroads”, speech given at a conference organized by the Norwegian Refugee Council, Brussels, 4 December 2012. See Norwegian Refugee Council, Principles in Practice: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action, Brussels, 4 December 2012, p. 11, available at:

76 On this point, it is fascinating to revisit Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire, Denoël, Paris, 1999 (first published 1952), pp. 19–26.

* The views expressed in this article, while based on the operational experience of the ICRC, are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the ICRC's institutional position.


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Applying the humanitarian principles: Reflecting on the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Jérémie Labbé and Pascal Daudin


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