There are a number of meanings for the term humanitarian. Here humanitarian pertains to the practice of saving lives and alleviating suffering. It is usually related to emergency response (also called humanitarian response) whether in the case of a natural disaster or a man-made disaster such as war or other armed conflict. Humanitarian principles govern the way humanitarian response is carried out.
- 1 Core humanitarian principles
- 2 Additional humanitarian principles
- 3 Principles based on field experience in emergencies
- 4 Sources
- 5 Humanitarian Accountability
- 6 Additional principles
- 7 The right to life with dignity
- 8 Vulnerability and behavioral issues
- 9 Compliance
- 10 Footnotes
- 11 References
Core humanitarian principles
The principle of humanity means that humankind shall be treated humanely in all circumstances by saving lives and alleviating suffering, while ensuring respect for the individual. It is the fundamental principle of humanitarian response.
The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (RC/NGO Code) introduces the concept of the humanitarian imperative which expands the principle of humanity to include the right to receive and to give humanitarian assistance. It states the obligation of the international community “to provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is needed.”
Provision of humanitarian assistance must be impartial and not based on nationality, race, religion, or political point of view. It must be based on need alone.
For most non-governmental humanitarian agencies (NGHAs), the principle of impartiality is unambiguous even if it is sometimes difficult to apply, especially in rapidly changing situations. However, it is no longer clear which organizations can claim to be humanitarian. For example, companies like PADCO, a USAID subcontractor, is sometimes seen as a humanitarian NGO. However, for the UN agencies, particularly where the UN is involved in peace keeping activities as the result of a Security Council resolution, it is not clear if the UN is in position to act in an impartial manner if one of the parties is in violation of terms of the UN Charter.
Humanitarian agencies must formulate and implement their own policies independently of government policies or actions.
Problems may arise because most NGHAs rely in varying degrees on government donors. Thus for some organizations it is difficult to maintain independence from their donors and not be confused in the field with governments who may be involved in the hostilities. The ICRC, has set the example for maintaining its independence (and neutrality) by raising its funds from governments through the use of separate annual appeals for headquarters costs and field operations.
The core principles are defining characteristics, the necessary conditions for humanitarian response. Organizations such as military forces and for-profit companies may deliver assistance to communities affected by disaster in order to save lives and alleviate suffering, but they are not considered by the humanitarian sector as humanitarian agencies as their response is not based on the core principles.
Additional humanitarian principles
In addition to the core principles, there are other principles that govern humanitarian response for specific types of humanitarian agencies such as UN agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and NGOs.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement follows, in addition to the above core principles, the principle of neutrality. For the Red Cross, neutrality means not to take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.
The principle of neutrality was specifically addressed to the Red Cross Movement to prevent it from not only taking sides in a conflict, but not to “engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.” The principle of neutrality was left out of the Red Cross/NGO code because some of the NGHAs, while committed to giving impartial assistance, were not ready to forgo their lobbying on justice issues related to political and ideological questions.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182  lists the principle of neutrality, alongside the principles of humanity and impartiality in its annex as a guide to the provision of humanitarian assistance. The resolution is designed to strengthen human response of the UN system, and it clearly applies to the UN agencies.
Neutrality can also apply to humanitarian actions of a state. “Neutrality remains closely linked with the definition which introduced the concept into international law to designate the status of a State which decided to stand apart from an armed conflict. Consequently, its applications under positive law still depend on the criteria of abstention and impartiality which have characterized neutrality from the outset.” 
The application of the word neutrality to humanitarian aid delivered by UN agencies or even governments can be confusing. GA Resolution 46/182 proclaims the principle of neutrality, yet as an inter-governmental political organization, the UN is often engaged in controversies of a political nature. According to this interpretation, the UN agency or a government can provide neutral humanitarian aid as long as it does it impartially, based upon need alone.
Today, the word neutrality is widely used within the humanitarian community, usually to mean the provision of humanitarian aid in an impartial and independent manner, based on need alone. Few international NGOs have curtailed work on justice or human rights issues because of their commitment to neutrality.
The provision of aid must not exploit the vulnerability of victims and be used to further political or religious creeds. All of the major non-governmental humanitarian agencies (NGHAs) by signing up to the RC/NGO Code of Conduct have committed themselves not to use humanitarian response to further political or religious creeds.
Principles based on field experience in emergencies
All of the above principles are important requirements for effective field operations. They are based on widespread field experience of agencies engaged in humanitarian response. In conflict situations, their breach may drastically affect the ability of agencies to respond to the needs of the victims.
If a warring party believes, for example, that an agency is favoring the other side, or that it is an agent of the enemy, access to the victims may be blocked and the lives of humanitarian workers may be put in danger. If one of the parties perceives that an agency is trying to spread another religious faith, there may be a hostile reaction to their activities.
The core principles, found in the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct and in GA Resolution 46/182 are derived from the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross, particularly principles I (humanity), II (impartiality), III (neutrality—in the case of the UN), and IV (independence).
Accountability has been defined as: “the processes through which an organisation makes a commitment to respond to and balance the needs of stakeholders in its decision making processes and activities, and delivers against this commitment.”  Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International adds: “Accountability is about using power responsibly.” 
Article 9 of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief states: “We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources;” and thus identifies the two major stake holders: donors and beneficiaries. However, traditionally humanitarian agencies have tended to practice mainly “upward accountability”, i.e. to their donors.
The experience of many humanitarian agencies during the Rwandan Genocide, led to a number of initiatives designed to improve humanitarian assistance and accountability, particularly with respect to the beneficiaries. Examples include the Sphere Project, ALNAP , Compas , the People In Aid Code of Good Practice , and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, which runs a “global quality insurance scheme for humanitarian agencies."
The RC/NGO Code also lists a number of more aspirational principles which are derived from experience with development assistance.
- Agencies should operate with respect to culture and custom
- Humanitarian response should use local resources and capacities as much as possible
- The participation of the beneficiaries should be encouraged
- Emergency response should strive to reduce future vulnerabilities
- Agencies should be accountable to both donors and beneficiaries
- Humanitarian agencies should use information activities to portray victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects
The right to life with dignity
The Sphere Project Humanitarian Charter uses the language of human rights to remind that the right to life which is proclaimed in both the Universal Declaration of Human Right and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights is related to human dignity.
Vulnerability and behavioral issues
Humanitarian principles are mainly focused on the behavior of organizations. However a humane response implies that humanitarian workers are not to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of those affected by war and violence. Agencies have the responsibility for developing rules of staff conduct which prevent abuse of the beneficiaries.
Sexual exploitation and abuse
One of the most problematic areas is related to the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries by humanitarian workers. In an emergency where victims have lost everything, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
A number of reports which identified the sexual exploitation of refugees in west Africa prodded the humanitarian community to work together in examining the problem and to take measures to prevent abuses. In July 2002, the UN’s Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) adopted a plan of action which stated: Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment. The plan explicitly prohibited the “Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour” The major NGHAs as well the UN agencies engaged in humanitarian response committed themselves to setting up internal structures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries.
Substantial efforts have been made in the humanitarian sector to monitor compliance with humanitarian principles. Such efforts include The People In Aid Code of Good Practice, an internationally recognised management tool that helps humanitarian and development organisations enhance the quality of their human resources management. The NGO, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, is also working to make humanitarian organizations more accountable, especially to the beneficiaries.
Structures internal to the Red Cross Movement monitor compliance to the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross.
The RC/NGO Code is self-enforcing. The SCHR carries out peer reviews among its members which look in part at the issue of compliance with principles set out in the RC/NGO Code
- Pictet (1979) Humanity. Pictet's commentary is focused on the Red Cross use of the principle of humanity, but includes more general comments relevant to the whole humanitarian sector.
- For a critical view see: Hugo Slim, "Relief agencies and moral standing in war: principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and solidarity, Development in Practice, Volume 10, Numbers 3-4/August 1, 2000
- (See: Report of the Panel on United Nations Peacekeeping (Brahimi report)pp. ix & 9)
- (see: Joanna Macrae: NGOs: Has the 'N' gone missing? Randolph Kent: Footing the aid bill)
- United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182
- Denise Plattner
- (For a discussion of the concept of neutrality with respect to humanitarian response see: Denise Plattner)
- GA Resolution 46/182
- (For a discussion of their background and a commentary on the principles see: Jean Pictet 1979)
- Lloyd, Robert M.; Monica Blagescu; Lucy de las Casas (2005). Pathways to Accountability: The Gap Framework. One World Trust. ISBN 0-9504434-6-8. p.5
- Mary Anderson: http://programs.ssrc.org/emergencies/publications/Anderson.pdf p.2
- Sphere Handbook
- (See:IASC, Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse)
Pictet, Jean (1979). "The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross: a commentary". Retrieved 2006-12-14.