Monday, September 29, 2008

Discussing the HUMANITY Principle

By Niniu Oligao (SIRC Dissemination & Communication officer), taken from Jean Pictet in "Principles into Action" by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Solomon Islands Red Cross has an important role to play in our communities to spread information about humanitarian values, particularly, the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and the International Humanitarian Law (Law of war) to our Police, schools, youths and general public to prepare us for situations of armed conflict.

Its principle of Humanity clearly defines why the Red Cross has established in our country and worldwide.

Of course, the world did not wait for the Red Cross to come to the rescue of suffering people. Feelings and gestures of solidarity compassion, and selflessness are to be found in all cultures. Our concern, however, is somewhat different from this fundamental observation, for we wish to consider various aspects of the specific nature of Red Cross and Red Crescent work to alleviate human suffering. This specificity is especially well illustrated in the words of the Movement's Principles, the first of which reads:

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being, It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.

The universality of suffering

The universality of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has its roots in the universality of suffering, and it is thus that the principle of humanity must be understood. Indeed, the Movement has no "dogma", no special philosophy; it is attentive to human misery. Caught up in war or stricken by natural disasters, often struggling merely to survive, countless human beings suffer from man's inhumanity to man. The questions "Who is man?", and "What humanity does the principle refer to?", seen in this light, are more often a source of anguish than of joy.

The cries of distress heard throughout the modern world cannot - and must not - be met with indifference; they must instead foster activity. To hear one's fellow man, to recognize his suffering, is to feel the call to service. Therein lies the Movement's sense of purpose.

Is the principle of humanity, as some suggest, too vague, too general to serve as a basis for the Movement's work? We think not. The words used in the text - to prevent, to alleviate, to protect, to ensure respect - require very concrete efforts. Then is the undertaking not too ambitious? Not at all! There are at least two reasons why not:

  • the principle of humanity implies that no service whatsoever for the benefit of a suffering human being is to be dismissed out of hand; it is also a reminder of how important it is also to seize the opportunity for humanitarian action, of how important the Red Cross and Red Crescent spirit of initiative is;
  • the principle of humanity is only the first in a declaration of seven principles which must be read as a whole. The principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence in particular are indicative of how clearly the Movement has determined both the framework and the means for attaining its objectives.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent endeavour to prevent and alleviate human suffering. But, what kind of suffering. Throughout its existence the Movement has gradually broadened the scope of its activities to reach new categories of victims, both in time of war and in peacetime. But its components do not seek to do everything and anything. Their priority is to act in situations where no one else can or will. They work as auxiliaries to the public authorities; they do not wish to replace them, but to make their own unique and unbiased contribution in situations which are often totally unforeseen.


The principle of humanity embodies one especially important idea: to protect. This is a very tangible concern. At the root of the word lies the idea of shelter from the elements. The notion of protection suggests a screen or shield placed between a person or a thing and the danger they face. In addition to this very material sense, the word has other connotations which are of particular interest to us. To protect means:

  • to help someone by sheltering him from attack, ill-treatment, etc.;
  • to frustrate efforts to destroy him or make him disappear;
  • to meet his need for security to help him survive, to act in his defence.

Protection may therefore take many forms, depending on the situation of the victims.

In peacetime, protection of life and health consists primarily in preventing sickness, disasters and accidents, or in reducing their effects by saving lives: a National Society first-aider who cares for the injured and saves them from an otherwise certain death has engaged in a fundamental form of protection. Protection in this sense can also mean, as it does for some National Societies, efforts to maintain a healthy environment.

It is the function of international humanitarian law to protect the victims of armed conflict and to ensure that their lives are as normal as possible under the circumstances. The provisions of the law are not, however, always applied. It is then up to the ICRC in particular to make sure the rules of humanitarian law are applied and to assist those persons protected by the law to make sure they do not die of hunger, are not ill-treated, do not disappear and are not attacked.

There are some points of convergence between humanitarian interests, which require that prisoners be treated humanely, that the wounded be cared for and that civilians be spared, and clearly defined political interests. Compliance with humanitarian rules in war and protection for the victims can, in the medium and long term, but encourage a resumption of dialogue between adversaries, eventual reconciliation and finally the restoration of peace.

Prevention and alleviation of suffering

Protection goes hand in hand with prevention and alleviation of suffering. The Red Cross and Red Crescent are sometimes reproached for not doing enough for prevention and concentrating - albeit very effectively - on the alleviation of suffering. The reproach is not entirely well-founded.

Is it the doctor's fault if the patient has fever? Should he leave a patient's bedside to vaccinate everyone in the village? Probably not, but we are well aware that relief, which does no more than help the beneficiaries subsist, is at best a limited, short-term measure. At worst, it may even exacerbate the negative effects (passivity, dependence, etc.) of present or future disasters. We must therefore reconsider the meaning and scope of our humanitarian activities.

This opens whole new horizons to the Movement. It must, of course, always help those who suffer, but it can also act to prevent their suffering. It must provide relief in an emergency but it can also help reconstruct and indeed assist in the development process.

In this context, how do the Red Cross and Red Crescent contribute to peace ?

The Movement has always been active in two domains concerned with the prevention of cruelty and other forms of abuse which are so widespread in armed conflicts:

    • the first and most essential is the development and extension of international humanitarian law: to ensure compliance with and extend the scope of the law's protective rules is an absolutely essential undertaking which helps promote respect for life and human dignity;
    • then, as a corollary, the Movement promotes the dissemination of humanitarian law: spreading knowledge of the basic rules protecting victims and non-combatants is another vital task.

The overall work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, their teaching of solidarity between men and nations, the multitude of practical and selfless acts they perform, their activities in the midst of strife, can all help bring about a spirit of peace which, as we have said, can facilitate the reconciliation of adversaries. In view of the political hazards involved, the question of the prevention of armed conflicts is, however, one that the Movement has thus far approached only with great caution.

Realistic optimism

The Red Cross and Red Crescent base their activities on behalf of suffering humanity on what Jean Pictet once called an "optimistic philosophy": the refusal to despair of mankind. But this optimism in no way detracts from the "philosophy's" realism. It is aware that humanitarian work is difficult. Its greatest enemies may well be neither weapons nor disaster, but selfishness, indifference and discouragement. It is for this reason that the Movement has not based its activities on dry principles, but on service to suffering humanity, to life, often fragile and vulnerable. This is how we understand the principle of humanity.