Sanguine Mirage: The False Comfort of the ‘Humanitarian Imperative’

This project aims to identify key challenges involved in applying ‘humanitarian principles’ and make recommendations on humanitarian action in armed conflict.

A United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivers aid packagesin the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years on 30 July 2017.

In armed conflict, the safety, dignity, and livelihoods of civilian populations is the most pressing action and yet often the most difficult to ensure. The ‘humanitarian principles’ exist to enable humanitarian organizations which comply with them to distinguish themselves from parties to the conflict in order to provide humanitarian aid to civilians.

However, humanitarian organizations face increasing challenges in their ability to uphold the humanitarian principles and deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians. In these situations, policymakers and practitioners must be better equipped to protect the lives of those caught up in conflict. To do so, a critical assessment of the humanitarian principles is needed.

Since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and their Additional Protocols in 1977, together commonly referred to as international humanitarian law (IHL), humanitarian action for civilians in situations of armed conflict by organizations of the United Nations (UN) system, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other humanitarian organizations has taken place under an evolving interpretation of what it means to comply with the humanitarian principles which are widely recognized as humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

During a period in which the political context for humanitarian action in situations of ongoing armed conflict has evolved significantly, ranging from counterterrorism measures and sanctions, to changing UN Security Council practice, the organizations claiming to operate in accordance with the humanitarian principles have faced growing difficulties in their efforts to do so.

  • What are the consequences for delivering humanitarian assistance when organizations are unable to comply?
  • Are the humanitarian principles still fit for purpose?

The objectives of the research are to show the evolution of policy and practice in relation to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence among humanitarian organizations operating in conflict settings.

It aims to offer concrete and operational recommendations for donor countries and humanitarian organizations themselves, as to how these humanitarian organizations should seek to apply legal, ethical, and political considerations in the formulation of policy relating to impartiality, neutrality, and independence in today’s conflict situations. It also considers the future of the humanitarian principles and their relevance during armed conflict.

This two-year research project is supported by an Advisory Group and is hosted by the International Security programme in collaboration with the International Law programme at Chatham House.

It is funded by the governments of Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Meeting summaries