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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster
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DIGNITY PRINCIPLES RESPECT, PARTICIPATION AND EMPOWERMENT

The next part of the modern elaboration of humanitarian ethics rightly attempts to give moral detail to the quality of attention and solicitude that we identified as central to the virtue of humanity. How should we best help others? These are questions of humanitarian process and approach. This is not bureaucratic process but concerns the ethics of relationship, attitude, behaviour and power-sharing in humanitarian action.

In 1991, the Code of Conduct added six new principles to Pictet’s "core four” principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. These six principles, Articles 5—10 of the Code, are about the ethics of working with affected communities and their various organizations and authorities. They draw upon political ethics, community development ethics and human rights principles to define the proper working relationship between humanitarian agencies and the people they aim to help. In particular, the new principles affirmed the importance of respect for people’s dignity and their rights to participate in the process of delivering humanitarian action. The Code also confirmed the moral importance of lasting investments that sustainably improve people’s ability to manage their own survival. This was reckoned as more ethical than top- down short-term fixes—the kind of aid that tends to be delivered pater- nalistically and soon sees people back in their original state of powerlessness, vulnerability and risk.

These process principles are best summarized as principles of dignity. Their concern for dignity is shown in their determination to respect people’s individuality, agency and authority in the management of their own lives and communities. In the discussion that follows, I take the articles of the Code slightly out of their current numerical order and treat Article 10 before Article 9 because Article 10 is so specifically concerned with dignity. I then treat Articles 8 and 9 in a separate discussion of the ethics of sustainability and accountability. Articles 5, 6, 7 and 10 of the Code of Conduct focus on affected people’s dignity in armed conflicts and disasters, specifically by emphasizing their agency as human beings and their right to participation in matters that affect them. These principles are important and well judged, but they are not as simple as they sound—as any humanitarian worker will tell you.

 
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