FOCUS ON – The necessity for abiding by the humanitarian principles | September 23, 2016
To some, humanitarian principles are just lofty goals when in fact, a recent study published by both NRC and Handicap International insists that they are necessary to ensure that millions of people receive the life-saving support they need. In 2004, Bruce Biber, the Deputy Head of Division, Policy and Cooperation within ICRC, released […]
To some, humanitarian principles are just lofty goals when in fact, a recent study published by both NRC and Handicap International insists that they are necessary to ensure that millions of people receive the life-saving support they need.
In 2004, Bruce Biber, the Deputy Head of Division, Policy and Cooperation within ICRC, released an article in which he insisted that the humanitarian principles – of neutrality, independence, impartiality and humanity – identify “the alleviation of human suffering as the prime motivation for humanitarian assistance” and further urged that they “must be provided on the basis of need alone and not as an instrument of government or foreign policy”.
Unfortunately, what’s striking in the study recently released by Handicap International in collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), is that more than ten years later, humanitarian principles are still regularly manipulated (by governments, UN agencies or even donors) to further a political agenda. Things might even get more and more worrisome, given what both NGOs found out during field missions conducted in Syria, South Sudan, Colombia and Nepal.
Principles under attack
In Syria, for instance, the humanitarians interviewed for the purpose of the study told us that the situation is so politicised and insecure that they feel forced to choose between providing aid and adhering to the principles. This is driven e.g. by the policies of some major international donors, which prohibit dialogue with who they have designated as terrorists. Unable to engage with all parties without fear of loosing their fundings, NGOs then struggle to be perceived as neutral.
In South Sudan, the integrated UN mission has many mandates : political, military, developmental and humanitarian. Playing such different roles can blur lines and creates confusion. Besides, it also means that when negotiating access to affected populations with the government, the integrated UN mission plays a political role and is not solely guided by humanitarian needs. How can it itself be neutral ?
In Colombia, the government is involved in the peace process as well as in humanitarian coordination. While this is commendable, it also poses a major challenge to principled humanitarian action. For example, the government may restrict access to areas considered problematic in the context of the conflict, irrespective of humanitarian needs, which violates the principle of humanity and impartiality.
In Nepal, eventually, humanitarian actors struggled to provide aid guided by needs alone following the earthquake of April 2015, mainly because the government saw the relief effort as a ‘scaling up’ of development work rather than a different approach to assistance.
The way forward
What’s needed is to put back principled humanitarian action at the heart of humanitarian assistance, to ensure that each and everyone (government, UN agencies, donors and even aid workers!) uses the humanitarian principles as a roadmap for guidance and support in order to provide our beneficiaries with the best possible assistance. Lousy policies and inadequate programmes are indeed felt most harshly in the field, where some of the most vulnerable will suffer twice: first from the conflict or natural catastrophe and then again from ineffective humanitarian assistance.
To do so, NRC and Handicap International recommends three initiatives:
One of the most striking findings of the study is the confusion that sometimes surrounds the humanitarian principles, even among the humanitarian workers. Most agree that they are necessary but not everyone masters their content and meaning.
Consequently, the first thing to do is to ensure that humanitarian principles are part of each organisation’s DNA and are achieved through continued training and frank discussion, which are both ensured by Handicap International Foundation within HI’s network.
Second, we all need to make sure that new generations of aid workers, politicians, donors, military leaders and others understand and defend the principles, not just as lofty goals but also as operational tools.
- Talk and share
As mentioned before, humanitarian workers need to be able to dialogue and coordinate with all parties, state, non-state armed groups, national and local authorities, and so on. One can indeed be open and ready to dialogue, while remaining neutral; sometimes, it’s even the only way to do so.
What is also needed are spaces where donors, governments and humanitarian organisations can talk freely and frankly about how the principles fare in operations, so potential tensions due to location, culture and other factors can be understood and pre-empted.
- Watch each other
Not necessarily by implementing new mechanisms, even though it could a solution, but by ensuring the implementation of existing supranational initiatives such as the International Disaster Response Law, the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative or the European Consensus on Aid.
 Bruce Biber, “The Code of Conduct: humanitarian principles in practice”, ICRC, 20 September 2004; available here: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/misc/64zahh.htm