Over recent years the pages of the RRN has conveyed information and analysis on the emerging need for humanitarian assistance to be delivered to rigorous ethical as well as minimum technical standards. The need for ethical relief has become more apparent and more public with every major humanitarian crisis, reaching a peak in Goma in late 1994. It was the events in eastern Zaire, which turned the spotlight as perhaps never before on relief workers who, rather than being applauded for their humanitarian work, were accused of making things worse, of feeding the guilty, of not saving the innocent.

For relief workers, the dilemmas of working in conflict situations are not new. The humanitarian community has been working on a range of initiatives designed to articulate the values and principles underpinning humanitarian action. As the ICRC article How can NGO’s help promote international humanitarian law? on page 3 highlights, much remains to be done in terms of increasing the understanding and application of humanitarian principles and law in situations of conflict. In part, this will rely upon the ICRC making more accessible its century of experience of operating within an ethical framework, the spirit of which was codified in the Geneva Conventions. The authors caution however, that as interest grows in the definition and application of humanitarian principles, it is important to ensure that the tenets of the Geneva Conventions are not diluted amidst a proliferation of do-it-yourself codes.

As agencies are urged to sign up to the latest codes and to improve their staff training on international legal standards, so political actors seem less and less willing to subscribe to and protect those same principles. James Fennell writes vividly about the renunciation of principle to realpolitik in the context of the Great Lakes crisis. During the Cold War, humanitarian principles were sacrificed in the name of the superpower struggle. After a brief era of optimism that some more compassionate logic would drive international relations, the voices of those who argue the necessity of maintaining the humanitarian imperative and ensuring that wars are fought according to minimum standards of ethical conduct are sounding ever more lonely.

Increasingly now, it is the same donor countries who are pressing for NGOs to sign up to codes of ethical and technical conduct and for ‘smart relief’, who also subscribe to a foreign policy characterised by disengagement. While relief workers may be killed in the course of the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the UN and its member states appear to shudder at the idea of their soldiers being killed in order to enforce international law. As Fennell concludes, in such a world, it is difficult to remain optimistic that the concept of global values which reflect people’s innate compassion can be upheld to counter cruelty.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 9

Issue 9 articles