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Conference cycle: Principles guiding humanitarian action

Events and highlights / Videos 11 mins read

Conference cycle: Principles guiding humanitarian action

Dialogue between an ICRC delegate and armed men in North Darfur, Sudan. (Boris Heger / ICRC)

The seven Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are the expression of a set of values and experiences distilled from over a century and a half of protecting the lives and dignity of people affected by conflict, violence and disaster worldwide. To mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Fundamental Principles, the ICRC convened a series of high-level public events and expert panel discussions.

The conference cycle was one among several other initiatives aimed at fostering a global discussion on principled humanitarian action, in the run-up to the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. These also included an edition of the International Review of the Red Cross, a series of practical workshops across the Movement, and an upcoming e-Briefing. This worldwide reflection refined our mastery of the humanitarian principles as eminently pragmatic tools that, when applied judiciously on the ground, carry the power for more humanitarian effectiveness amidst the most challenging crises of our times.

Scroll down to access the wealth of resources generated by the conference cycle.

Access the video playlist


Inaugural conference: Peter Maurer on humanitarian diplomacy and principled humanitarian action

2 october 2014

Delivered at the Maison de la Paix in Geneva, the speech of ICRC President Maurer set the tone for the conference cycle. It framed the debate about humanitarian principles as a pragmatic reflection that 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; accessing populations in need while maintaining the safety of humanitarian personnel.

humanitarium-icon-cleanRead the speech of ICRC President Peter Maurer (.pdf)


Walk the talk: Assessing the application of humanitarian principles on the ground

24 February 2015

Co-organized by HERE-Geneva and the ICRC, this expert panel reflected on how to better apply humanitarian principles amid humanitarian operations on the ground. The panel emphasized the operational relevance of principles, namely for: building acceptance and a legacy trust at the local level; generating access for humanitarians on the ground; cutting through complex decision-making processes during crisis. Indeed the experts insisted that principles are tools, not dogma: although clear redlines do exist (ex. no use of military escorts), principled humanitarian action is mainly a deliberated and balancing act. The event was also the occasion to explore ways to assess the application of principles on the ground; indicators may include needs assessment, the degree of constraints imposed by donors, and post facto evaluations of field operations.

The event gathered: Marc DuBois, Former Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières UK; Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at ICRC; Kate Halff, Executive Secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR); Sorcha O’Callaghan, Head of Humanitarian Policy at the British Red Cross (BRC).

icon-reportRead the conference report


Principles in action: How do neutrality and independence contribute to humanitarian effectiveness?

17 June 2015

This side event of the 2015 UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Humanitarian Affairs Segment was co-organized by the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation).

The event was the occasion to clarify the distinction between two fundamentally different approaches to humanitarian aid: on the one hand, the “Dunantists” who abide by a stricter application of the humanitarian principles and whose action is exclusively based on needs; on the other hand, the “consequentialist” approach concerned with social justice and aimed at transforming societies. Although the two approaches may arguably act in complementarity on the ground, “consequentialist” may not brand themselves as principled humanitarian actors, because of their political involvement. Any lack of transparency or clarity about an agency’s stance towards humanitarian principles can provoke unintended consequences, including problems of perceptions towards other actors on the ground. Humanitarians must be more honest and cautious when communicating what they are and what they are not.

The event gathered: Antonio Donini, Senior Researcher at Tufts University; Georges Kettaneh, Secretary General of the Lebanese Red Cross; HE Jorge Lomónaco, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations; Jean-Christophe Sandoz, ICRC Deputy Director of International Law and Policy; Joelle Tanguy, former Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Values and Diplomacy, International Federation.

humanitarium-icon-clean Read Jean-Christophe Sandoz’ speech (.pdf)


Health care in danger: Launch of a common core on ethics

30 June 2015

The ICRC hosted a public livestreamed conference to mark the launch of the Ethical principles of health care in times of armed conflict and other emergencies.

Qualified as “ground-breaking” by ICRC President Peter Maurer, the code of ethics was already signed, when the event was held, by five major health care organizations representing 30 million professionals worldwide. The document aims at protecting both patients and health care personnel operating in conflict zones. Indeed the existing norms protecting health care personnel are insufficient, and this lack reduces access to health services, the presence of skilled staff and the reconstruction of health systems. The new code of ethics strengthens the mandate of health care personnel to act in the best interest of the patient, by providing increased guidance and protection.

icon-reportLearn more about the Ethical principles

Read the conference report

Read the keynote speech of ICRC President Peter Maurer


Connecting with the Past: The Fundamental Principles in Critical Historical Perspective

16-17 September 2015

The University of Exeter, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the ICRC held a two-day historical symposium that gathered more than 50 renowned academics, historians and humanitarian practitioners. Covering the origins of modern humanitarianism in the 19th century to the 9/11 aftermaths, the symposium tackled complex issues such as the instrumentalization of humanitarian organizations by States, and the changing perceptions of the Fundamental Principles by States, donors, non-State armed groups and those the Movement strive to help. Can the principles, essentially conceived in a Christian, western European context, transcend cultures and be accepted universally?

icon-reportDownload the symposium report (.pdf)


Stubborn realities, shared humanity: History in the service of humanitarian action

16 September 2015

This livestreamed conference was the public segment of a two-day historical symposium jointly organized by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of Exeter and the ICRC. What can be learnt about the Principles from the rich history of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the wider humanitarian sector, that may in turn provide insights into current realities and act as a guide for the future?

The event gathered: Sir Michael Aaronson, Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Surrey; Jane Cocking, Humanitarian Director at OXFAM UK; Vincent Bernard, Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross; Irène Herrmann, Associate Professor at University of Geneva; Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC; Andrew Thompson, Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter.


The Fundamental Principles: Panel debate at the European Parliament

21 September 2015

The ICRC, the Red Cross EU Office and the Standing Rapporteur on Humanitarian Aid of the European Parliament organized an event on the Fundamental Principles in the European Parliament Information Office in Belgium.

The debate provided an opportunity to clarify the stance of States towards the humanitarian principles. Although the European Union and its member states are inherently political and therefore not neutral, the principles are deemed as healthy for agencies such as the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) to clarify the limits of their own humanitarian action. Furthermore both EU representatives endorsed the principle of independence, which ensures the autonomy of humanitarian actors from governments. They emphasized the importance of not putting humanitarian actors in danger by compromising the trust their independent stance guarantees them.

The event gathered: Florika Fink-Hooijer, Director of the European Commission at the Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO); Enrique Guerrero, Standing Rapporteur on Humanitarian Aid of the European Parliament; Stéphane Kolanowksi, Senior Legal Advisor at the ICRC Brussels delegation; Alexander Matheou, Director of Programmes at the British Red Cross; Linda McAvan, President of the Committee on Development of the European Parliament.

icon-reportRead the conference report


Seven Tales, Seven Principles: Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Red Cross Red Crescent Fundamental Principles

7 October 2015

Hosted by the Embassy of Italy in Vienna, this celebration was part of broader two-day reflection organized by the Austrian Red Cross, the International Federation and the ICRC, bringing together components of the Movement, as well as states, humanitarian organizations and other interested stakeholders. The event features short personal testimonies and powerful reflections on the meaning and impact of the seven Fundamental Principles.

The seven speakers were: Abdullahi Ahmed, Cultural Mediator at the Italian Red Cross; Elena Ajmone Sessera, ICRC Operations Coordinator for the Americas; Greg Arnold, Singer-songwriter, Producer and Lecturer; Ambassador Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Integration; Prof. Fausto Pocar, President of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law; Claire Schocher-Döring, Head the Restoring Family Links Section at the Austrian Red Cross; LCol Tammy Tremblay, Legal Advisor, Canadian Armed Forces.


The “costs” of principled humanitarian action

November 2015

What are the costs of adhering to the Fundamental Principles, in terms of resources, access, security and reputation? To explore these costs and how they are managed, Deakin University and the ICRC brought together a roundtable of academics and humanitarian practitioners from Australia and overseas. Although the event was under Chatham Rules, the report derived from the roundtable details the themes and questions of the discussion, and aims to serve as inspiration for further dialogue.

icon-reportDownload the conference report (.pdf)


Blurred boundaries: Militaries, humanitarian action and neutrality

November 2015

Should militaries be involved in providing humanitarian assistance in conflict zones? This was the question at the heart of a debate co-hosted by the ICRC and the Centre for Military and Security Law (CMSL) at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Team affirmative – arguing that militaries should be involved in delivering aid – comprised Melissa Conley Tyler, National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and Ned Dobos, Assistant Regional Director of the International Society for Military Ethics, Asia-Pacific Division.

On the team exploring the other side of the argument were Mike Kelly, former minister for defence materiel and retired Colonel in the Australian Defence Force, and Professor Bill Maley from the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.


Key takeaways of the conference cycle

Beacon, not dogma

The humanitarian principles provide common ethical guidelines and operational tools to the modern humanitarian sector. They apply in all circumstances, including peace time. However this does not mean that they should be applied in a dogmatic or absolute way. The principles must be reviewed, reinterpreted and reaffirmed by each successive generation. Although clear redlines exist (ex. no use of military escorts), principled humanitarian action is mainly a deliberated and balancing act.

Tools for the trade

The debate about humanitarian principles is a pragmatic one that may yield answers for sensitive operational dilemmas, e.g. priority-setting in situations of overwhelming needs; fulfilling a commitment to humanity while taking into account the stark realities of power; building acceptance and a legacy trust at the local level, and consequently improve access for humanitarians on the ground; cutting through complex decision-making processes during crisis.

Universality of the principles

The increased reference to and use of the principles by many organizations in recent decades reflect their success. Amid the expansion and professionalization of the humanitarian sector over the past 20 years, the principles became a means of self-identification and, in consequence, have been increasingly invoked as a mantra. Observers have pointed at the resulting exclusionary effect, whereby “non-principled” actors are not considered to be “professional” or even “humanitarian”. The “humanitarian community”, historically consisting mostly of Western organizations, should take care that the principles remain a universal call for a shared humanity, one that is sensitive to – and compatible with – cultural differences.

Walking the talk

Different schools of thought drive the conduct of humanitarian operations, among them: the “Dunantists”, guided by the principles and described at times as “apolitical”, and the “Consequentialists” who promote a more “rights-based and transformative approach” to humanitarian action. Even though both approaches may act in complementarity, access to populations in contested areas often depends on being perceived as strictly neutral, impartial and independent. Consequentialists may not simultaneously claim to be Dunantists, and any ambiguity in this regard may reflect on other actors involved. Humanitarians should be mindful and transparent about their stance towards the humanitarian principles and their ability to apply them on the ground.

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