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Ilya Ivanov

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, RIAC expert

The fundamental principles of humanitarian action – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality - have become the basis of operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and many other prominent humanitarian actors working in the field. The operating conditions, which include disasters, conflicts and various emergencies, may seem to render those principles unrealistic. However, is it really the case? Are those principles more than just words? What power do they have?

The fundamental principles of humanitarian action – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality - have become the basis of operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and many other prominent humanitarian actors working in the field. The operating conditions, which include disasters, conflicts and various emergencies, may seem to render those principles unrealistic. However, is it really the case? Are those principles more than just words? What power do they have?

Evolution of principles

After the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, other humanitarian organisations, sharing similar goals and vision [1], started to emerge. Humanitarians were facing a new challenge – how to create the same norms, or principles, by which they should abide?

One of the first attempts to create them was made by Gustave Moynier, the co-founder of the ICRC, in 1875. He put it as following:

Foresight, which means that preparations should be made in advance, in peacetime, to provide assistance should war break out; solidarity, whereby the Societies undertake to establish mutual ties and to help each other; centralization, which implies that there is only one Society in each country, but whose activities extend throughout the entire national territory; and mutuality, in the sense that care is given to all the wounded and the sick irrespective of their nationality.’ (Emphasis added.)

The ICRC, IFRC and National Societies had to abide by principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality

Those principles, however, were largely redefined later: first, this list lacked the essential principle – humanity, which moved Gustave Moynier and Henri Dunant, among others, to create the ICRC in the first place; second, those principles proved to be less comprehensive in terms of the activities of the ICRC and National Societies, and needed further development.

In 1921 the ICRC and the IFRC (then the League of Red Cross Societies, LORCS) presented the first set of principles to be included in the Statutes of the ICRC: impartiality; political, religious and economic independence; the universality of the Movement; the equality of its members. The first principles have indeed evolved, they encompassed more aspects of humanitarian action, and they were the guiding ideas for both organisations, as well as National Societies, for almost half-century.

The 20th International Conference of the Red Cross in Vienna in 1965 became the last step towards the current evolution of principles, when the principles which are in force today were finally adopted: from then on, at least the ICRC, IFRC and National Societies had to abide by principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. The first four principles are deemed to have more weight, as perceived even on a global level – e.g., by UN OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), among others.

It is necessary to note that those principles are not the only ones guiding humanitarian actors in the world. Other organisations have their own, albeit similar, principles, and there are other initiatives and frameworks – the Sphere Project being one of the best examples with its Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. The fundamental principles still make the core rules by which the most prominent humanitarian actors abide, and are extremely (and especially the first four – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence), important in difficult circumstances – such as armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies.

Principles and law

The principles should not be mixed with law – be it international humanitarian law (IHL) or international disaster response law (IDRL). They represent modes of action, but not necessarily the rules for everyone, although there is such a trend today, especially in IDRL[2]. However, in the case of IHL, principles may play an important role when it comes to the overall humanitarian action, and to the use of the protective emblem in particular.

The fundamental principles still make the core rules by which the most prominent humanitarian actors abide, and are extremely important in difficult circumstances – such as armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies.

Under international humanitarian law, the ICRC have the right to perform their humanitarian functions in an international armed conflict [3], subject to the consent of a state [4]. This right covers, however, not only the activities of the ICRC, but ‘any other impartial humanitarian organization’ as well. In other words, the principle of impartiality is important from the legal perspective, and adherence to this principle would elevate the status of a humanitarian organisation, thus making it more difficult for a state to ignore it or put obstacles for its activities.

In a non-international armed conflict, however, there is no real right to perform humanitarian activities for the ICRC or other ‘impartial humanitarian body’ as in an international armed conflict, but they have what is usually referred to as a right of initiative, when they ‘may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict’[5]. For the state-parties to the Additional Protocol II (which covers non-international armed conflicts) there is an additional provision concerning local relief organisations and National Societies[6] - again, with the same limitations of state consent and adherence to the principles:

‘If the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of the supplies essential for its survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies, relief actions for the civilian population which are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken subject to the consent of the High Contracting Party concerned.’[7] (Emphasis added.)

Another issue is the use of protective emblem (Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Crystal), used for medical personnel and objects. While the ICRC can use it at all times [8], National Societies, as well as other organisations, can use it only ‘to indicate or to protect the medical units and establishments, the personnel and material protected by the present Convention and other Conventions dealing with similar matters’[9] – i.e. for limited purposes. Another important reference in the same provision is that those organisations should act ‘in conformity with the principles laid down by the International Red Cross Conferences’[10] – arguably, this means they have to comply with all seven principles [11].

Under international humanitarian law, the ICRC have the right to perform their humanitarian functions in an international armed conflict, subject to the consent of a state.

What would happen if an organisation is not adhering to those principles, or at least the principle of impartiality? If one is to completely disregard the abovementioned provisions and principles, and to see the situation only from the battlefield commander perspective, a humanitarian action not in compliance with the principles (or at least the first four ones), might be seen as part of military activities supporting the adversary. If the action is not independent or neutral (e.g., a state, indirectly involved in an internal conflict by supporting an armed group in another state, is sending ‘humanitarian aid’ to the conflict zone), it may rise questions in terms of impartiality. If it specifically focuses on that part of population which supports the same armed group, the state-party to the conflict might at least simply not give the necessary consent for aid, and if the aid is only helping the fighters – it might be seen as a military target [12] at most.

Coordination of humanitarian actors

In complicated situations of armed conflicts, disasters and emergencies, with rapidly growing number of humanitarian actors and politicisation of aid, it is also necessary to ensure the smooth operation of all the parties involved – in other words, an effective coordination. Here again the principles may come in handy.

If one is to completely disregard the abovementioned provisions and principles, and to see the situation only from the battlefield commander perspective, a humanitarian action not in compliance with the principles, might be seen as part of military activities supporting the adversary.

The use of principles is almost self-explanatory. One of the most important ways to make organisations with different structures, goals and policies cooperate effectively in a complex context is to create trust networks [13]. Principles can achieve that goal on a basic level, with more developed frameworks – such as the abovementioned Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response – providing even more trust and smoother cooperation.

In the circumstances where it is hard to apply more elaborated frameworks – such as conflicts – knowing that another organisation shares your view on how to carry out humanitarian action helps not only establish the inter-organisational cooperation, but also ensure security and even proper perception by others. If, as in a situation described above, an organisation provides help only to belligerents, it may not only be problematic in terms of actual security of the cooperating organisation, but it will also undermine the image of the latter, despite how impartial and neutral it might be.

The use of principles is almost self-explanatory.

In case of the ICRC, the IFRC and National Societies, the last three principles – voluntary service, universality and, especially, unity – were adopted exactly for the purpose of better coordination. Voluntary service excludes any gainful character of activity, universality establishes equal positions, responsibilities and duties of all the organisations within the Movement on a global level, and unity is understood in a way that there can only be one National Society for a country, open for everyone.

Principles, however, help not only in the inter-organisational dialogue. They create a certain image of a humanitarian organisation and makes it easier to cooperate with states and even engage with non-state actors – through humanitarian negotiations.

Principles in humanitarian negotiations

Nowadays humanitarian negotiations get more and more attention – from organisations in the field, states and non-state actors alike. Both scholars and organisations emphasise the need to comply with the principles while negotiating for better humanitarian outcomes, especially when your counterparts are armed groups.

In the circumstances where it is hard to apply more elaborated frameworks – such as conflicts – knowing that another organisation shares your view on how to carry out humanitarian action helps not only establish the inter-organisational cooperation, but also ensure security and even proper perception by others.

The UN OCHA Manual on Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups presents a thorough analysis of how principles (they exclude, however, independence from the core principles) are used in those negotiations and why they are important.

Humanity would ensure the basic assumption that organisation is driven by its humanitarian considerations, not military or political goals. Neutrality would provide the opportunity to be present on both (or even more) sides of the conflict, and to be perceived accordingly – and as the Manual rightly points out, neutrality does not mean acceptance of the armed group or their legal status, it merely means that in order to achieve humanitarian goals they have to engage in a dialogue. Impartiality would point out organisation’s focus on real needs of the population, support neutrality and pave the road for better coverage of the existing issues on the ground.

The manual includes additional principles as well: among them operational independence, participation, accountability, transparency, do no/less harm and respect for culture and custom. In the end, those principles help in creating the correct image of that organisation, and such perception establishes a better foundation for a dialogue with partners, be it other organisations, states or non-state armed groups [14].

Ensuring principles today

While more and more humanitarian actors adhere today to fundamental principles and even more complicated frameworks, the world today is not much safer and secure than it was yesterday, or a decade ago.

Hopefully now principles have left the usual habitat of academic discussions and intra-organisational mantras to a global level with efforts of UN bodies (notably, UN OCHA) and a big 2015 campaign from the ICRC and IFRC, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the adoption of their seven fundamental principles. This helps to engage more actors to comply with the humanitarian principles in their activities and build a stronger global humanitarian community. In addition to that, it helps those operating in the field – now states and armed groups [15] may be sure that cooperation with those who abide by the humanitarian principles will bring nothing but help, impartial, neutral and independent.

While more and more humanitarian actors adhere today to fundamental principles and even more complicated frameworks, the world today is not much safer and secure than it was yesterday, or a decade ago.

Further development in this field would include a more universal representation of humanitarian principles in policies of all the actors concerned, and, most importantly, codification of the applicable law, both international humanitarian law and international disaster response law. With some exceptions, principles per se are only good when humanitarian organisations, states and non-state actors are acting in good faith; we still need a solid letter of the law to ensure that acting contrary to those principles is not only unwelcome – it is unlawful.

1. Later they became a full-fledged International Movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 1919

2. They are also important in IDRL when it comes to humanitarian diplomacy, which is mostly based on principles. For more see Régnier, Philippe, ’The emerging concept of humanitarian diplomacy: identification of a community of practice and prospects for international recognition’, International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 93, Number 884, December 2011, pp. 1211-1237.

3. Geneva Conventions I-II, Art. 9, Geneva Convention IV, Art. 10.

4. The text of the Geneva Conventions might seem not clear on whether a state have to consent, but this seems to be the general practice. Consent, however, is certainly necessary in the case with Societies of neutral states – they need consent of both their government and the party to the conflict: see Geneva Convention I, Art. 27.

5. Geneva Conventions I-IV, Common Art. 3

6. Additional Protocol II, Art. 18

7. Ibid.

8. Geneva Convention I, Art. 44, para. 3

9. Ibid., para. 1

10. Ibid., para. 2

11. On the misuse of emblem, see: Slim,H, ‘Protection of the red cross and red crescent emblems and the repression of misuse’, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 272, 1989. URL: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/misc/57jmb9.htm

12. With numerous exceptions, of course, such as medical aid, units and personnel – see, e.g. Geneva Convention I, Chapters III-VII. Unless those are used for perfidy – see Additional Protocol I, Art. 37. As one can notice, IHL is full of exceptions to exceptions. And even the latter sometimes might have exceptions as well.

13. On this, see, e.g., Stephenson M. Jr. ‘Making humanitarian relief networks more effective: operational coordination, trust and sense making’, Disasters, Vol. 29, (4), December 2005, pp. 337-350.

14. For more on humanitarian negotiations, see, e.g. Mancini-Griffoli, Deborah, Picot, André, Humanitarian Negotiation: A Handbook For Securing Access, Assistance And Protection For Civilians In Armed Conflict, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, October 2004. URL: http://www.hdcentre.org/uploads/tx_news/188HumanitarianNegotiation.pdf; ATHA. Humanitarian Negotiation in Practice, June 25, 2015. URL: http://www.atha.se/webcast/humanitarian-negotiation-practice

15. On the positive experience of engaging armed groups see the activities of Geneva Call. For instance: Geneva Call, How we work: Armed Non-State Actors. URL: http://www.genevacall.org/how-we-work/armed-non-state-actors/

 

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