In 1965, the delegates of the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross formally recognized in a proclamation a series of principles to guide and safeguard the Movement’s action: the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. These seven principles – Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary service, Unity & Universality – provide both an ethical and an operational framework for the Movement. They represent its ‘moral compass.’ They are also practical tools for Red Cross and Red Crescent actors to gain access in situations of conflict or humanitarian crisis and deliver humanitarian help in a safe, principled and unimpeded way.

The principles are hierarchically and logically organized, as theorized by their main architect Jean Pictet. They do not all have the same finality and the same value. Humanity and Impartiality are substantive principles, the ‘goals’ of humanitarian action. Neutrality and Independence are operational principles, ‘tools’ for humanitarian actors. Finally, Voluntary service, Unity and Universality are organizational principles; they provide the institutional foundations that enable a principled humanitarian action.

Representation of the Fundamental Principles in pyramid-form

The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: ethics and tools for humanitarian action / IFRC; ICRC, 2015.

This research guide is designed as an entry point into the public documentation related to the development, adoption and implementation of the Fundamental Principles. It gives the reader access to the related digitized sources from the ICRC Library’s collections. A selected bibliography and additional online resources aim to capture current related scholarship and debates. Questions or suggestions regarding the research guide’s content are welcome. Send them at library@icrc.org.

The Fundamental Principles

Humanity

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.

Impartiality

It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

Neutrality

In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.

Independence

The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.

Voluntary service

It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.

Unity

There can be only one Red Cross or one Red Crescent Society in any one country. It must be open to all. It must carry on its humanitarian work throughout its territory.

Universality

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.

Understanding the Fundamental Principles with personal stories and case studies

The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: ethics and tools for humanitarian action / IFRC; ICRC, 2015.

The History of the Fundamental Principles

The tenets of the Fundamental Principles appear in the Movement’s founding texts, whether Dunant’s Memory of Solferino or the 1864 Geneva Convention. Principles were also included in varying numbers and under varying definitions in the statutes of the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ‘ICRC’) and the League of Red Cross Societies (the League).

The 1965 proclamation concluded an 80-year-long journey to fully capture the Movement’s guiding principles, spearheaded in the ICRC successively by Gustave Moynier[1], Max Huber[2] and Jean Pictet[3] – with the latter being commonly regarded as their eventual architect. As the initiator of the 1965 proclamation, the ICRC aimed to prevent the fracture of the Movement in the polarized world of the Cold War era. The joint proclamation also concluded a period of re-negotiation of the League and the ICRC’s respective attributions within the Movement post-WWII. The Fundamental Principles adopted in 1965 replace indeed the principles adopted unilaterally by the League in 1946.

The Principles’ origin

A memory of Solferino / Henry Dunant (1862)

Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Geneva, 22 August 1864

Ce que c’est que la Croix-Rouge / Gustave Moynier (1874)

1921: The ICRC’s statutes include four principles for the Movement: impartiality; political, religious and economic independence ; universality of the Movement ; equality of its members.

Red Cross and neutrality / Max Huber (1936)

The Red Cross: principles and problems / Max Huber (1941)

Fellowship: the moral significance of the Red Cross / Jean-Georges Lossier (1948)

1948 : The League of Red Cross Societies includes a series of principles in its new statutes.

18th International Conference of the Red Cross (Toronto, 22 July – 8 August 1952)

La pensée et l’action de la Croix-Rouge / Max Huber (1954)

Red Cross principles / by Jean Pictet (1956)

Portrait of Jean S. Pictet, principal architect of the Fundamental Principles

Jean S. Pictet, 1914-2002 (ICRC Archives)

“The future of the Red Cross depends on its universality, on its principles being accepted by the different nations and, within the nations, by individuals of every shade of opinion”.

This study by Jean Pictet, director for general affairs of the ICRC at the time of writing, was a decisive step in the path towards the 1965 proclamation.  He identified seventeen Red Cross principles, some ‘fundamental’ (humanity – equality – due proportion – impartiality – neutrality – independence – universality) and some ‘organic’ (selflessness – free service – voluntary service – auxiliarity – autonomy – multitudinism – equality of the National Societies – unity – solidarity – foresight).

Also available in French, Spanish, German, Arabic and Japanese.

Council of Delegates (Prague, 3 and 5 October 1961)

Draft versions and proposed amendments

Text unanimously adopted by the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross (October 5th, 1961)

Red Cross principles – also available in French and Spanish

See also the Verbatim report of the Council of Delegates – also available in French and Spanish

20th International Conference of the Red Cross (Vienna, 2-9 October 1965)

The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross proclaimed by the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross, Vienna, 1965: commentary / by Jean Pictet (1979)

A decade after the proclamation of the Fundamental Principles, Pictet’s commentary details the meaning of each of the seven principles and the modalities of their application. – Also available in French (original text), Arabic, German, Norwegian and Spanish.

Principles, not dogmas

Jean Pictet advocated strongly for a non-dogmatic approach to the Fundamental Principles. Before they were formalized in statutes and proclamations, the principles were born and tested on the ground – crystallizing a century of Red Cross and Red Crescent humanitarian action. Their application remains a balancing act, as humanitarian action does not take place in a political vacuum.

The Fundamental Principles are meant to be practical tools. They help create safe access for humanitarians in difficult, conflict-ridden zones. They guide them in deciding how to prioritize their response and allocate resources. Finally, they’re a source of moral guidance in the face of complex ethical dilemmas.

1986: The Fundamental Principles are integrated in the Movement’s revised statutes.

Respect for and dissemination of the Fundamental Principles: final report (1993)

At the 1986 Council of Delegates, the ICRC was tasked with conducting a study of the way the Fundamental Principles were understood and applied across the Movement, with the aim to enhance their dissemination and implementation. –Also available in French and Spanish. – See also: First intermediary report on the study (1989) / Second intermediary report on the study (1991).

32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Geneva, 8-10 December 2015)

The ICRC and the Federation launched in 2014 a joint initiative on « Reaffirming the Fundamental Principles » in the lead-up to their 50th anniversary.  An extensive consultation and a series of regional workshops within the Movement ensued. The emerging recommendations were presented to the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The Fundamental Principles and the Humanitarian Sector

The Movement’s adoption of the Fundamental Principles had larger repercussions on the humanitarian sector. During the 1990s-2000s, the principles were broadly embraced by NGOs, who translated them in their own policies and practices. In 1994, the ICRC, the Federation and a series of disaster response NGOs notably drafted a common code of conduct. The first four principles – Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality and Independence – have been codified in UN General Assembly resolutions 46.182 (1991) and 58.114 (2003). They have subsequently been referred to as the ‘humanitarian principles.’ The principles are undeniably a cornerstone of modern humanitarianism. But their relevance, interpretation and implementation remain a source of debate.

History of the Fundamental Principles: Further Readings

Studies and essays on international humanitarian law and Red Cross principles in honour of Jean Pictet / ed. by Christophe Swinarksi (1984)

Humanity for all: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement / Hans Haug (1993)

Les principes fondamentaux de la Croix-Rouge : une histoire politique / Daniel Palmieri, 2015 (only available in French)

All the documentation related to the Fundamental Principles in the ICRC Library collections

Selected Bibliography: Translating the Fundamental Principles into Action

Books

Articles

Neutrality and impartiality: the importance of these principles for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the difficulties involved in applying them / Marion Harroff-Tavel. IRRC, 1989.

The ICRC’s approach to contemporary security challenges: A future for independent and neutral humanitarian action / Pierre Krähenbühl. IRRC, 2004.

Is neutral humanitarianism dead? Red Cross neutrality: walking the tightrope of neutral humanitarianism / Barbara Ann Rieffer-Flanagan. Human Rights Quarterly, 2009.

The ICRC in Afghanistan: reasserting the neutrality of humanitarian action / Fiona Terry. IRRC, 2011. (also available in French)

The relevance of the Fundamental Principles to operations: learning from Lebanon / Sorcha O’Callaghan and Leslie Leach. IRRC, 2013.

How do humanitarian principles support humanitarian effectiveness? / Jérémie Labbé. In: Humanitarian accountability report 2015, Geneva: CHS Alliance.

Applying the humanitarian principles: reflecting on the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross / Jérémie Labbé and Pascal Daudin. IRRC, 2015.

Humanitarian principles put to the test: challenges to humanitarian action during decolonization / Andrew Thompson. IRRC, 2015.

Romancing principles and human rights: are humanitarian principles salvageable? / Stuart Gordon and Antonio Donini. IRRC, 2015.

Unpacking the principle of humanity: tensions and implications / Larissa Fast. IRRC, 2015.

Volunteers and responsibility for risk-tasking: changing interpretations of the Charter of Médecins Sans Frontières / Caroline Abu Sa’Da and Xavier Crombé. IRRC, 2015.

A matter of principle(s): the legal effect of impartiality and neutrality on States as humanitarian actors / Kubo Mačák. IRRC, 2015.

Walking the walk: evidence of principles in action from Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies / Amelia B. Kyazze. IRRC, 2015.

Coming clean on neutrality and independence: the need to assess the application of humanitarian principles / Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop. IRRC, 2015.

Legislating against humanitarian principles: a case study on the humanitarian implications of Australian counterterrorism legislation / Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Yvette Zegenhagen and Fauve Kurnadi. IRRC, 2015.

Faith inspiration in a secular world: an Islamic perspective on humanitarian principles / Lucy V. Salek. IRRC, 2015.

“Rahmatan lil-’alamin” (A mercy to all creation): Islamic voices in the debate on humanitarian principles / Abdulfatah Said Mohamed and Ronald Ofteringer. IRRC, 2015.

Faith and impartiality in humanitarian response: lessons from Lebanese evangelical churches providing food aid / Kathryn Kraft. IRRC, 2015.

From Fundamental Principles to individual action: making the Principles come alive to promote a culture of non-violence and peace / Katrien Beeckman. IRRC, 2015.

Humanitarian access in armed conflict: a need for new principles? / Adele Harmer and Abby Stoddard with Alexandra Sarazen. [London]: Humanitarian outcomes, December 2018.

Oases of humanity and the realities of war: uses and misuses of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles / Rony Brauman. Journal of humanitarian affairs, 2019.

Putting affected people at the centre of humanitarian action: an argument for the principle of humanitarian subsidiarity / Pat Gibbons et al. Disasters, 2020.

Humanitarian negotiation with parties to armed conflict: the role of laws and principles in the discourse / Rob Grace. Journal of international humanitarian legal studies, 2020.

Additional online resources


[1] ICRC co-founder Gustave Moynier (1826-1910) is the institution’s president from 1864 to his death. For further information about his contribution to the Movement’s principles, see Quelques remarques sur l’élaboration des principes de la Croix-Rouge chez Gustave Moynier / André Durand. In : Etudes et essais sur le droit international humanitaire et sur les principes de la Croix-Rouge : en l’honneur de Jean Pictet = Studies and essays on international humanitarian law and Red Cross principles : in honour of Jean Pictet. Genève: La Haye; M. Nijhoff, 1984, p. 861-873. Find his writings in our collections.

[2] ICRC president from 1928 to 1944, Max Huber (1874-1960) was one of the main architects of the ICRC doctrine. Find his writings in our collections.

[3] Renowned legal expert, director general, then vice-president of the ICRC, Jean Pictet (1914-2002) played a major role in the development of international humanitarian law and the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Find his writings in our collections.