Humanitarian principles in conflict zones: Time for a rethink?

By Dominic Naish:

The emblems of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Photo: Wikipedia (CC 2.0)
The emblems of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Photo: Wikipedia (CC 3.0)

At the start of April, three humanitarian staff working for the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) were killed in unrelated incidents in Mali, Syria and Yemen. An ICRC statement released a month earlier had recently denounced violence against its staff, and noted that the organisation’s emblem was regularly being ignored or even targeted by armed actors.

The red cross or red crescent on a white background is designed to be a universally recognisable symbol for the ICRC’s key principles of humanitarianism: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. While using different emblems, all the major humanitarian organisations subscribe to these four ideals. Once they have gained access to a dangerous environment, many agencies traditionally relied on the recognition of their adherence to these principles for safety, rather than hiring security personnel.

In recent years, however, a new trend is leading humanitarian efforts into environments that have seen ever higher numbers of aid workers killed. This is the emergence of ideological, sub-state armed groups who do not conduct insurgencies but instead take direct control of towns and cities. Such groups include IS in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Sahel, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and others.

As the number of situations in the world requiring humanitarian attention shows no sign of dropping, there is a critical question emerging for humanitarian actors: is it still feasible or useful to hold on to the four central principles of humanitarianism? And if so, how?

Troublingly, a humanitarian case that was previously regarded as an exceptional extreme is now percevied as the forerunner of the new norm. That case was Somalia, where over the last eight years the country has seen some 250 national and international aid workers killed, wounded or kidnapped.[i] In 2007 a number of factors come together to create something of a perfect storm of a crisis in Somalia: drought, famine, around a million internally displaced people (IDPs), a fragile government, armed crime, warlord-led violence, and the rise of terrorist group al-Shabaab. These factors meant that the humanitarian needs in the country were colossal. The capital city, Mogadishu, and the lands surrounding it were the worst affected. It is worth examining how the humanitarian principles came under pressure in Somalia at this time to see what can be learned for crisis zones today.


Regarding neutrality, the principle of not taking sides, the primary challenge in Somalia was the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). In 2007 the TFG received international political backing in an effort to restore a centralised state after decades of fractured leadership. For humanitarians, this came with the unwelcome expectation that all aid efforts should be directed through and by the TFG. But the TFG was not only financially corrupt, politically weak and predatory towards its own citizens, but it was also an active party in an ongoing civil war. Given that many of the people in need of humanitarian assistance were in regions controlled by al-Shabaab, working under a TFG auspice would have confirmed al-Shabaab’s suspicions that foreign aid workers were part of the international campaign against them.

The lesson from Somalia is that humanitarians must promote their neutrality ever more convincingly, both to advance their own agendas and to protect themselves from violence. Practical steps for ensuring this can be as simple as not basing foreign aid workers in the same living quarters as other expatriates, or using vehicles painted in different colours to non-neutral organisations. In 2010 the UN pushed for an integration effort in Somalia whereby humanitarian aid would have come under the state-building project. The agencies in question successfully resisted, allowing many to continue working in areas under al-Shabaab control.


The lack of security for aid workers in Somalia had significant consequences for their impartiality, the principle of providing aid based on need alone. The narrative can be reduced to something like this: the highly dangerous environment in Somalia led to international humanitarian staff running projects almost exclusively by “remote control” from Nairobi. This meant that projects had to rely on “gatekeepers” – influential local figures – for access to civilian populations. The gatekeepers could thus easily divert, block or otherwise utilise aid for their own ends. A 2010 UN report found that some 50% of food aid being sent into Somalia was being diverted, with 10% going directly into the hands of al-Shabaab.[ii]

As well as logistical problems, there was the political factor of the Somali clan system. Somali society is built on ever-changing alliances and feuds between clans, sub-clans and even sub-sub clans, a situation made even knottier by the huge scale of internal displacement. How do you deliver humanitarian aid to a person whose rights are not recognised by their gatekeeper on the grounds of clan differences?

The problem of impartiality is that it relies on the recipients of aid holding an egalitarian worldview equitable to that of the giver. Not all crises involve the clan system, but many involve other sectarian divisions that mean helping one group automatically antagonises another. Navigating these waters requires a high level of local understanding, but security risks can often prevent outsiders from staying in place long enough to acquire suh understanding. Humanitarian agencies have to be prepared to constantly judge whether their involvement or non-involvement does more harm than good, and accept that often they will be choosing between two evils.


The independence of humanitarian agencies is and always will be in tension with the desires of donors and governments, but one relatively new pressure comes in the form of anti-terrorism legislation. Understandably, it is illegal to provide money, material or intelligence to terrorist groups. In 2011, however, this became a problem in southern Somalia when around three million people required food aid in regions controlled by al-Shabaab. Humanitarian staff were confronted with a choice between negotiating with terrorists at the risk of criminal prosecution and reputational damage, or circumventing them at the risk of then being attacked or rejected.

The three ICRC workers killed in early April were all working in countries where powerful terrorist groups either control territory or operate with impunity. Northern Mali is afflicted by groups such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Mourabitoun, led by the feared Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Syria is home to the Nusra Front as well as the Islamic State, while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are making full use of the arms and cash flowing into the civil war that recently erupted in Yemen.

If humanitarian action is to have a future, agencies and lawmakers alike have to take seriously the reality that negotiating with designated terrorist groups is no longer avoidable. Frankness and humility are required on both sides, in recognition that damage-limitation will be an intrinsic part of humanitarian work in these contexts.


The final humanitarian principle is humanity itself. Humanity is work done ‘to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found’ in order to ‘protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being.’[iii] It is not a matter of ensuring base survival no matter what, but rather enabling human life to be lived with dignity and hope.

Areas controlled by terrorist groups attract political as well as humanitarian attention. As development, emergency aid and security agendas become increasingly integrated, there is a risk that humanitarian aid becomes a tool used by rich nations to look after their own interests abroad without seeming imperialistic.

In the Somali example, supporting the TFG and an integrated aid programme allowed donor countries to distance themselves from political responsibility for Somalia while also engaging with al-Shabaab as a potential threat. The crisis in Somalia was the archetype for many moral, practical and political dilemmas of the modern humanitarian situation, as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, and many other cases have testified.

Without the principle of humanity, humanitarian aid can easily be reduced to material welfare that allows a fundamental political status quo to continue unchallenged. If the political conditions for aid programmes that enable people to flourish rather than merely survive are not present, humanitarian organisations will have to think hard about how their understanding of the principle of humanity requires them to respond.

Dominic Naish is an MA Conflict, Security and Development student at King’s College London and a Research Associate for Consultancy Africa Intelligence. Follow him @domnaish.


[i] Figure taken from the Aid Worker Security Database, provided by Humanitarian Outcomes.

[ii] Matt Bryden et al, Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1853 (2008), UN Security Council, 2010

[iii] “The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement”,

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