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Strengthening Humanitarian Principles

16 July 2012

By Naomi Baird, Humanitaran Response Officer, 16 July 2012

Humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence underpin the day-to-day operations of humanitarian organisations such as Trócaire, laying the foundations for trust and acceptance from host communities that enables NGOs and UN agencies to operate in often complex and volatile environments.  

However, in recent years NGOs and other humanitarian actors have repeatedly highlighted the increased politicisation of humanitarian aid by some governments, acting to blurr the boundaries between humanitarian objectives and military or political agendas, and to undermine humanitarian principles. In ‘Bridging the Gap’, a recent report examining the practical consequences of this trend, inconsistencies between the policy and practice of EU Member States in the delivery of humanitarian aid has been examined.

Those providing humanitarian assistance today do so in a highly complex environment. In violent conflicts, abuse of rights and the failure of states and non-state armed actors to observe the rules of war have confounded efforts to provide assistance to those who require it. In many of the world’s most complex humanitarian crises, the subjugation of humanitarian priorities to foreign policy objectives constitutes a significant threat to the delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance. The growth in the number and diversity of humanitarian actors, some of whom act in ways inconsistent with principled humanitarian action, acts to undermine efforts to preserve the impartiality, independence and neutrality of humanitarian aid.

Adherence to humanitarian principles is essential for establishing and maintaining access to affected populations, whether in the context of a natural disaster, an armed conflict or in complex emergency settings. Establishing trust is crucial. When governments, militaries or donors seek to co-opt or undermine these principles, the trust between those providing and those receiving assistance can be damaged or destroyed, and it can become too dangerous to assist those who need our help the most.

The European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid was adopted in 2007 by EU institutions and Member States. It sets out a common vision for humanitarian aid for EU institutions and Member States, outlining core principles and commitments, and reaffirming the primacy of humanitarian principles. However, as Bridging the Gap highlights, there is sometimes a mismatch between the policies committed to and their implementation in practice.

A strong commitment across all EU institutions to principled humanitarian engagement will provide the strongest foundation for the provision of effective assistance to those affected by disaster, and will sustain the EU as a leading, credible humanitarian donor. EU institutions and Member States need to show greater political will to consistently put the Humanitarian Consensus into practice, particularly in terms of respecting and upholding humanitarian principles and ensuring that donor practice is guided by them. In order to support this, monitoring of the impact of the Humanitarian Consensus and its Action Plan (ending in 2013) should be strengthened at all levels.  

In order for the Humanitarian Consensus to be credible, in a context where key aspects of the framework are either unknown, misunderstood or ignored, there is an urgent need for signatories, as well as civil society organisations, to continue to raise awareness of it. Whilst some Member States have made considerable progress and have developed national policies that refer closely to the Humanitarian Consensus, in a significant number of EU countries such frameworks are still missing.  Equally as important is the need for national governments to ensure that the agreements within the Humanitarian Consensus are known across their departments i.e. Foreign Office, Defence, and Defence Forces, and that foreign policy does not contravene these agreements.

Where Member States do not meet their obligations, and donor governments’ crisis responses contravene the spirit and the intent of the Humanitarian Consensus, there needs to be a stronger commitment to collective action to address this. Bodies such as the EU Committee on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid (COHAFA) and wider donor forums such as the Good Humanitarian Donorship, which recently had a work stream on humanitarian principles, could perhaps play a more prominent role in this regard, and Member States should consider the potential for a peer review mechanism.

We urge the Irish government to take a stand for the primacy of humanitarian principles, and to show by example the importance of distinguishing between humanitarian and political objectives.  The Irish Presidency of the EU in 2013 provides a key opportunity for the Irish government to take the lead in facilitating the EU to reaffirm the importance of principled humanitarian aid and to re-commit to their agreements within the Humanitarian Consensus.  Ireland, during its Presidency of the EU, should also ensure that a new robust and principled  Action Plan of the Humanitarian Consensus, applicable to all Member States, is put in place in 2013.

We also urge other NGOs in EU Member States to continue to hold their national governments to account in relation to the Humanitarian Consensus, and to encourage States to reference the agreements and principles enshrined within it in all humanitarian strategies, policies and procedures.

Naomi Baird is Humanitaran Response Officer - Policy and Advocacy for Trócaire.
This is an edited version of an article published in the Humanitarian Exchange publication.

Read the full 'Bridging the Gap' report