TWO THE MODERN ELABORATION OF HUMANITARIAN PRINCIPLES
THE HUMANITARIAN GOAL HUMANITY AND IMPARTIALITY
International humanitarian action has become a significant field of international relations in the last 150 years, most notably since the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. This was followed by a wave of national and international NGOs during the First World War and the Russian Civil War and the development of the League of Nations. After the founding of the United Nations in 1945, humanitarian ethics established itself even more in the laws and institutions of international society. The creation of specific UN agencies like UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Programme set in train the modern inter-state practice of humanitarian action. The Geneva Conventions in 1949 and the new weapons conventions at the UN saw a rapid development in modern international humanitarian law.1
In this modern history of humanitarian action, the essential ethical goal of helping and protecting others in wars and disasters has been elaborated around the key concepts of humanity and impartiality. From these core values, new standards of international humanitarian law (IHL) and a set of operational humanitarian principles have been derived. Together, these laws and principles now delineate the ethical field of humanitarian action and seek to guide its practice.
This chapter examines the two ethical principles that have evolved as central to humanitarian action. But first, it is important to look at the
notion of principle itself that so dominates current understandings of humanitarian ethics. What is a moral principle and what purpose does it serve in a system of ethics?