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Principes of Humanitarian Action in International Humanitarian Law

Research reports

This paper is part of a wider study by ODI into the idea of humanitarian principles. It looks at the effects and issues around the dramatic increase in the volume of humanitarian assistance following the end of the Cold War.

The volume of humanitarian assistance increased dramatically in the years following the end of the Cold War. In part, this may be explained by increased need, due to conflict in the wake of the changes in the world order; but it also represents a change in focus of the international response to conflict abroad. A readjustment in the sphere of strategic interest of the major powers has been accompanied by political disengagement in nonstrategic areas, and strategies of in-country and temporary protection are replacing willingness to accept large numbers of refugees. Humanitarian assistance is increasingly becoming the preferred response to complicated crises.

The number of agencies delivering this assistance has increased correspondingly. Work that would traditionally have been the province of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) alone is now undertaken by a range of UN agencies and a sharply increased number of NGOs willing to deliver relief in the midst, or the immediate aftermath, of war. These new arrivals on the humanitarian scene have provoked, and continue to engage in, a debate on the problems of such assistance. The first set of issues concerns the impact of resources brought into the war area on the war itself. Does relief fuel the conflict, or skew the power relationship between the parties? This is complicated when, as is now common, one or more of the parties is a non-state actor. The second revolves around how to act in the face of gross human rights violations, and whether indeed it is possible to assist a civilian community who are themselves the target of attack. And the third concerns how to co-ordinate or implement strategies devised to combat the other problems: in other words, the question of regulation of the relief agencies themselves.

Kate Mackintosh