Principled humanitarian action faces many challenges today. Humanitarian principles need to be respected and promoted more than ever. Although legal and policy frameworks underpin the humanitarian principles, critical challenges continue to hinder implementation. The situation has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To discuss these issues and more, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in partnership with the O P Jindal Global University (JGU) hosted the inaugural lecture as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series on Humanitarian Law, Policy and Action, titled, “Principled Humanitarian Action: Rising to the Challenge”.

Delivered by Dr Gilles Carbonnier, Vice President, ICRC, the inaugural lecture delved into the global overview of the current humanitarian landscape, the new and developing challenges confronting humanitarian actors and the opportunities these challenges provide.

Opening the session, Prof Sridhar Patnaik, Professor and Registrar, JGU, reiterated the vital need for bringing these discussions to India.

Dr Carbonnier began by outlining the development of the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence over time.

He elaborated on them, stating that the principle of humanity works towards saving lives, alleviating suffering and protecting human dignity, even in the worst of circumstances. Impartiality involves responding to the most-pressing concern, regardless of ethnicity, age, political inclinations or any other criteria. Neutrality refrains humanitarian organizations from taking sides in an armed conflict to remain operational and be accepted by all parties involved. Finally, he talked about how independence enables autonomous operation, including managing interdependencies and preserving the freedom of humanitarian action.

While providing the historical context of principled humanitarian action, the establishment of the ICRC in 1863 and how this led to the states adopting the Geneva Conventions he highlighted that India was one of the earliest signatories to all the four Geneva Conventions.

Providing a comprehensive overview of the humanitarian landscape, Dr Carbonnier spoke about the principles of humanitarian action, the challenges affecting principled humanitarian action and how organizations are dealing with them. He described seven critical challenges to principled humanitarian action.

  1. Changing nature of armed conflict: Armed conflict is ever more protracted, fragmented, and urban and technological advances are changing the means and methods of warfare. Engagement is required on the nexus between humanitarian action development and peacemaking efforts while preserving humanitarian space and abiding by humanitarian principles.
  2. Increasing vulnerabilities: Many countries worldwide are witnessing increased vulnerabilities exacerbated by the combined impact of climate change and COVID-19. Out of the 25 countries most exposed to climate change, 14 are affected by protracted armed conflict. This leads to hyper-fragility situations, where people’s coping mechanisms are stretched to the limits, and institutions cannot cope with greater competition over scarce resources.
  3. Return of big power politics: The risk of a return of major international conflicts is becoming more likely. There is an increase in partnered operations whereby states intervene indirectly in non-international armed conflicts. This creates the danger of the dissolution of responsibilities and accountability under international humanitarian law.
  4. Digital transformation: Digital transformation goes way beyond technical issues and gives rise to new means and methods of warfare, such as autonomous weapon systems powered by AI and machine learning. IHL must be further developed, adapted and interpreted to provide adequate protection in the face of these changing means of warfare. Another primary concern of digital transformation is protecting private data and the risk of cyber-attacks. On the other hand, specific advances in science and technology provide enormous potential to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action.
  5. Triple nexus: Although the international community wants to see progress on all three fronts of the triple nexus between humanitarian action, development, and peace, the approach raises specific challenges for strictly neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action. Humanitarian action must be granted to the most vulnerable without pre-examined conditions, contrary to development assistance. There is room for greater synergy, but new moralities must be explored to preserve principled humanitarian action and the space for impartial humanitarian organizations to operate while engaging more on the trigger nexus.
  6. The political economy of armed conflict: There is a greater blurring of boundaries between economic and criminal activities in armed conflicts. To deal with the emanating security challenges in such a context, principal humanitarian action needs rethinking with more involvement from researchers and academics.
  7. Financing of humanitarian action: A growing share of humanitarian funding tends to be earmarked to specific crises into activities aligned with donors’ foreign policy interests. Funding sources need to be diversified by establishing new financing models in the humanitarian space to respond impartially to the most pressing needs.

Touching upon India’s continuous call for vaccine equity and global cooperation to secure adequate vaccine doses for the world’s poorest nations, Dr Carbonnier said, “India has indeed made remarkable contributions globally when it comes to providing COVID-19 vaccines, critical medicines and teams of experts to respond to the needs by making vaccines available to UN peacekeepers and health workers worldwide.” He added that ensuring that these communities are part of equitable access makes moral, epidemiological and economic sense and presents an opportunity to eliminate other preventable diseases and strengthen our collective readiness for future pandemics.

Dr Carbonnier also talked about India’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), particularly the Indian presidency of the UNSC, where India outlined its priorities of counter-terrorism measures and peacekeeping operations, maritime safety and security. He also highlighted India’s great push to equip peacekeeping operations with top-notch technologies.

Discussions following the lecture delved into aid localization, and Dr Carbonnier stated how ‘aid should be as local as possible and as international as necessary’. Highlighting the role of the National Societies he mentioned: “The ICRC’s primary partners are the 192 National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, like the Indian Red Cross or Afghan Red Crescent, etc., and we do work systematically to all the extent possible with National Societies… So, it is really by equipping and strengthening the capability and working with them that we try to localize the response as much as possible.”

The deliberations also focused on the interplay between climate change and conflict and the more significant role India could play in developing and shaping global humanitarian dialogues.

“I’m confident that this ICRC-JGU Distinguished Lecture Series will provide invaluable insights on the many complex crises that the world faces today… it will also provide insights and really a great platform exchange on what to do on how best to address the mounting humanitarian needs and challenges that we are facing. Our Distinguished Lecture Series will no doubt set sight on key issues related to international humanitarian law to humanitarian diplomacy and concrete operational issues,” said Dr Carbonnier.

Globally, for the ICRC, partnerships with universities are vital to fostering respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). An essential aspect of the ICRC-JGU partnership is the introduction of a Master’s Programme in Humanitarian Action and Policy. This would be the first-of-its-kind in India and the global South.