Humanitarian Action and Conflict

By MacFarlane, S. Neil | International Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Humanitarian Action and Conflict

MacFarlane, S. Neil, International Journal

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:10

In the eyes of many people, humanitarian aid has lost much of its moral currency. Once an undisputed symbol of solidarity with those struck down by misfortune and adversity, humanitarian assistance is now vilified by many as part of the problem, feeding fighters, strengthening perpetrators of genocide, creating new war economies, fuelling conflicts and perpetuating crises.

Clare Short(f.1)


The role of conflict in creating humanitarian needs has been much studied and is reasonably well understood. Until recently, the reverse relationship -- the positive and negative impact of humanitarian action on processes of conflict -- has drawn less attention. However, it is increasingly seen as an important dimension of analysis and of the design of humanitarian response to complex emergencies.

Humanitarian action is guided by the principles of neutrality (regarding the political and military objectives of parties in conflict), proportionality (regarding the distribution of help), and independence (from the political agendas of international organizations and states). The legal points of reference are article 3.1 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949, which states that 'persons taking no active part in hostilities shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria,' and article 7.1-2 of the 1997 Protocol Additional to the Convention Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts under which 'all the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked shall be respected and protected. In all circumstances they shall be treated humanely and shall receive, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition.'(f.2)

The Geneva convention attempts to draw a clear line between politics and the purposes and conduct of war, on the one hand, and assistance to victims, on the other. The latter is to proceed independently of the former; and political and military actors are prohibited under both conventions from impeding the humanitarian work covered in their provisions.(f.3) This point was articulated clearly by the director of international law and communications of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ,Yves Sandoz: 'Persuasion based on refraining from making any judgment as to the origin of the conflict, and action inspired by the elementary principles of humanitarian law -- the distinction between combatants and civilians, treatment for the wounded, respect for the physical integrity and dignity of detainees, aid for populations lacking the bare necessities -- all this will remain, for many years to come, the only way to conduct humanitarian operations in most situations of armed conflict.'(f.4)

However, the context of modern conflict and humanitarian emergency poses numerous and substantial difficulties for those adhering to the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence, and discrimination. Whatever the motives of humanitarian actors, their actions in today's conditions have significant political implications, and what they do is viewed politically. In particular, many believe that what they do may have important implications for the course of the conflict.

The subject is fraught with controversy. Recognition of the connection between humanitarian action and conflict makes many humanitarians uncomfortable because it casts ambiguity upon the humanitarian imperative. In the abstract, the rights of the victim and the obligations of others to help are paramount. But many argue that evaluation of humanitarian action must focus not merely on motive but also on consequence, including unintended consequence. …

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