Principles of Engagement for Emergency Humanitarian Assistance in the DRC
by Frances Smith, acting head of unit for ECHO and advisor on operarional coordination June 2003

Late last year the worsening humanitarian situation in the DRC together with increased security risks to humanitarian agencies made it necessary to seek consensus on a common approach to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, based on the application of agreed principles. This set of principles – the Principles of Engagement for Emergency Humanitarian Assistance in the Democratic Republic of Congo – aims at increasing the efficiency and pertinence of aid and maximising the humanitarian space for the relief community. They are based on the ICRC’s Code of Conduct and were first set out at a meeting in Nairobi on 23 November 1998.

The principles are addressed to the international humanitarian community as well as to the political and military authorities in the DRC. General overarching principles are defined as impartiality; neutrality; independence (aid based solely on need); human rights; participation with local partners; coordination between agencies; transparency of humanitarian actors; and accountability. In addition, some general protocols are mentioned with regard to accessibility, security and types of intervention, and monitoring and evaluation. The principles also set out some practical means for improving coordination mechanisms and monitoring compliance to the principles.

On 28 January this year a follow-up meeting was organised jointly by ECHO and OCHA. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss ways of establishing a coherent humanitarian program in the DRC following the ICRC’s Code of Conduct Principles of Engagement framework. In particular, the meeting aimed at designing practical mechanisms to ensure coordination and promotion of compliance.


Coordination mechanisms need to be established to support humanitarian operations throughout the DRC. Such coordination mechanisms should be light in structure, and facilitative rather than directive. It was thought that one way of addressing coordination needs would be through the establishment of regular coordination platforms in each of the centres of humanitarian action. The coordination platforms in the different areas would be established according to the varying features of that specific area.

In practice, these platforms will be managed by a focal point assigned by the local humanitarian partners in the region. This focal point will facilitate the flow of information (on security conditions, humanitarian priorities, operational coordination, joint assessments, etc) within the region and to other centres. The focal point will foster collective responses to problems encountered in the course of humanitarian operations and stimulate the elaboration of a comprehensive plan of action.

In areas where there is an effective UN presence the UN may be the appropriate partner to assume the responsibilities of managing such platforms. In areas where there has been no UN presence humanitarian partners operating in the area will be encouraged to designate such a person/organisation.

Humanitarian officials with regional or sub-regional mandates will be encouraged to continue their efforts in supporting humanitarian partners in setting up the necessary coordination platforms and, when required, facilitate the flow of information, the contact/negotiations with authorities, and the designing of a global action plan.

Adherence to the principles of engagement

Recognition was given to the importance of reaffirming the basic humanitarian principles governing humanitarian operations throughout the DRC. It was made clear that the document that emerged from the process in Nairobi was not an attempt to elaborate new principles for humanitarian action but merely to reiterate principles already spelt out in the ICRC’s Code of Conduct.

Mechanisms to encourage adherence to these principles were defined in terms of finding resolutions to problems rather than identifying sanctions or penalties for non-respect. Additional levels of recourse open to grieved parties were identified as including:

  • coordination platforms in each region (solidarity between all humanitarian partners)
  • regional representatives approach senior authorities at central level (possibly undertaken in parallel to attempted resolution at local level)
  • ambassadors, special envoys (EU, UN), and headquarters

Next steps

Two key ‘next steps’ were defined as the following:

  1. Humanitarian partners in the field will be encouraged to work together to set up the coordination platforms and will begin to produce regular reports (by the end of February 1999). Humanitarian officials with regional or sub-regional mandates will be encouraged to support this process.
  2. A similar meeting will be convened in May 1999 to review the effectiveness of humanitarian operations in the DRC and evaluate the pertinence of coordination mechanisms.