Humanitarian Diplomacy and Principled Humanitarian Action

Story by Anna Nelson, ICRC Washington, Spokesperson and Intercross Editor

The ICRC recently launched its 2nd Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action* with a speech by President Peter Maurer at La Maison de la Paix in Switzerland.

“The principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence have been at the heart of all major humanitarian operations for over a century. And yet, questions arise today about their relevance in addressing new and emerging challenges in a broadening humanitarian agenda,” he told a crowd gathered at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Maurer’s words herald a global discussion about the principles, which have guided the action of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement for over 150 years.

While a growing variety of humanitarian actors endorse humanitarian principles in practice, a lack of common understanding, or even misleading or politicized uses of these principles, risks jeopardizing the scope and scale of humanitarian action.

“The concepts as well as practices of ‘Principled Humanitarian Action’ are increasingly being challenged in current conflicts,” and “parties to the conflict themselves may explicitly desist from this project of ‘shared humanity’,” warned Maurer.

The debate about humanitarian principles is a very pragmatic one. It deals with “some of the most sensitive dilemmas” confronting us in the real world, namely, setting priorities in situations of overwhelming needs; fulfilling a commitment to humanity while taking into account the stark realities of power; and accessing populations in need while maintaining the safety of humanitarian personnel.

Watch the conference below.

*The ICRC’s Second Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action will gather key actors during seven high-level conferences to be held on several continents, starting in September 2014 and running throughout 2015.

By hosting discussions on humanitarian principles and their concrete operational implications in the field, the ICRC hopes that all parties to conflicts will, in the words of Maurer, “recognize their shared humanity,” as represented in the goals of humanitarian organizations present on the ground. Only through this recognition and dialogue will the ICRC be able to intervene to help affected populations.