Exploration 5E: Ethics of Humanitarian Action


Exploration 5E introduces students to some of the principles that guide humanitarian action in general and the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in particular. Students learn how the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence are applied in practice. They do this by analysing actual dilemmas – presented in the form of case-studies – that humanitarian workers have encountered during their work. (These cases can be explored at one time together, or separately, along with any of the explorations in this module to which they might apply.)

This course is one 45-minute session.


  • To be aware of some of the principles, such as those of neutrality and impartiality, that guide humanitarian action
  • To understand some of the dilemmas that humanitarian workers may face in performing their work

Key Ideas

  • All humanitarian organizations have codes of conduct that include important working principles.
  • The ICRC places a particular emphasis on the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence because of the nature of its activities.
  • Humanitarian workers encounter various ethical dilemmas for which satisfactory solutions are not always available. Doing nothing is also a decision and has consequences.


Prepare to display the three key principles where all can see for reference during step 1. Select dilemmas from “Ethical dilemmas in humanitarian action” for use in step 3.

In the Methodology Guide, review teaching methods 1 (Discussion), 3 (“No easy answers”), 4 (Using dilemmas), 7 (Writing and reflecting) and 10 (Gathering stories and news) and workshop 9 (“Using personal experience: Impartiality, neutrality and independence”).

If possible, view the relevant chapter of the teacher video (Using personal experience to understand concepts).



Working Principles in Humanitarian Action | 5 minutes

Discuss the idea that people adopt principles to guide their work.

Possible questions:

  • Do you know of any specific codes of conduct that bind the behaviour of people in doing the work of their profession?
  • Do you know of any specific codes of conduct that bind the behaviour of people in doing the work of their profession?
  • What principles do you think humanitarian workers need to guide them in carrying out their activities on behalf of victims of armed conflict?

  • 2

    Application of the Working Principles | 15 – 20 minutes

    Many humanitarian organisations have a code of conduct including principles such as Impartiality, Neutrality or Independence.

    Have learners apply the principles to some situations presented in Resource 1.

    For each situation, ask:

  • What would they answer if they were humanitarian workers?
  • What would they answer if they were humanitarian workers?
  • What is the driving principle behind their answer?
  • Reconvene to discuss their ideas.

    Each group should note the role that neutrality and impartiality play in the decisions humanitarian workers would have to make. Help learners recognize that situations often involve both principles.

    The ICRC’s principles of neutrality (not taking sides), impartiality (serve all victims according to needs) and independence (no subordination to political authority) require that the ICRC resist attempts by a contesting faction to co-opt its services or to deny those services to the opposition. This resistance has to be nonviolent and non-partisan.(…) As a result, ICRC delegates must remain patient, discreet, nonviolent (…) and willing to live with dilemmas. Nicholas Berry, War and the Red Cross


    Ethical Dilemmas in Humanitarian Action | 15 – 20 minutes

    Humanitarian action is sometimes criticized and questioned. Often the critics pinpoint the ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian workers in performing their tasks.

    Ask learners to identify the ethical dilemmas in some of the following situations, decide what action to take and develop arguments in preparation to the critique.

    A. Are we prolonging the war?

    Aid agencies came to the rescue of desperate civilians in a war-torn area. Since the agencies provided outside support for civilian survival, the groups who were waging the war were able to ignore the needs of their own civilians. This outside aid enabled them to use all their country’s resources to supply their soldiers. And that helped to keep the war from ending.

    B. Are we assisting policies of ethnic separation?

    Civilians fled to a Protected Zone that was set up as a haven for victims of “ethnic cleansing” in their country. From the zone, humanitarian workers assisted in their evacuation to refugee centres outside the country. This humanitarian action thereby contributed to ethnic cleansing by removing the victims from their homeland.

    C. Does humanitarian action provide a pretext for non-involvement of politicians?

    Two countries are at war, and casualties among the civilian population are enormous. Some voices in other countries decry the victims’ plight, but no foreign government is willing to intervene either to get the two fighting parties to stop or to put pressure on them to spare the civilian population. “What does it mean to try to bring humanitarian assistance when we know perfectly well that it will be only a drop in the ocean’ and that without foreign political pressure or military intervention, we humanitarian organizations just provide a good conscience for the world” laments a humanitarian worker.

    D. Are we sanctioning forced displacement of civilians?

    To reinforce control of a village in a fighting zone where rebel fighters used to shelter, the civilians were forced to settle in a camp 30 kilometres from their home. Humanitarian aid agencies were asked to bring food and medical assistance to the camp. Doing so, however, would thereby sanction the forced displacement of civilians.


    The Principle of Confidentiality | 15 – 25 minutes

    During the last two years, delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have visited a number of prisons in Nepal and have met over 600 detainees, mostly linked to Maoist movements.

    When asked about the condition of these detainees in jails or whether they have come across any signs of torture, Jean-Jacques Bovay, the head of the organization’s delegation in Nepal refused to comment, saying: “It would violate the ICRC’s principle.We cannot reveal this to the press but we have informed the government officials of what we saw during such jail visits”.

    When asked whether the mission had information concerning more than 60 missing rebels whose whereabouts the Maoists have been repeatedly urging the government to make public, Bovay said the ICRC “probably has the information” but again reiterated that he could not share it with the press.

    Source: Kathmandu Post via Nepalnews.com website 23 Mar 01

    Possible questions:

  • In what way may the principle of confidentiality help humanitarian workers to reach victims?
  • In what way is it related to the principles of neutrality and impartiality?

  • 5


    Write neutrality, impartiality, independence and confidentially where all can see. Discuss how learners considered each of these principles as they worked out their decisions.

    Why are neutrality and impartiality needed in humanitarian action? [By maintaining neutrality, humanitarian workers can move through war zones to help victims on both sides of a conflict. By being impartial, they can serve victims solely on the basis of need.]