50 years of the Red Cross/Crescent Fundamental Principles: still guiding humanitarian action

October 7, 2015
Amelia Kyazze, British Red Cross
Fundamental Principles in Somali

More than half a million migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, and nearly 3,000 have drowned. Although the season for safe crossings is drawing to a close, thousands more will face extortion, abuse, death and injury as they attempt the journey in coming months. At the same time, millions of other families risking everything for a better life will cross the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Some will travel by aeroplane, some will be smuggled in the back of trucks and some will walk for weeks or months trying to reach safety.

More than 60 million people are forcibly displaced today – the highest global total since the end of the Second World War. The vast majority are inside their own country or in a neighbouring country. Many are trapped by conflict, insecurity, oppression and deprivation; the lucky ones may reach reception centres, where they can get medical care, food, blankets and other simple but vital support. In many cases, these people will be met by a Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteer.

Our 17 million volunteers, active in nearly every country in the world, undertake the vast majority of the Movement’s work. These people give up their time to do some of the most difficult jobs in the world. They work in places where many others can’t, supporting those who are ignored or pushed aside. Volunteers greet refugees rescued from capsized boats; they deliver food to neighbourhoods on the front line of Syria’s bloody conflict; they visit prisons to try to improve the conditions faced by some that others would prefer to be forgotten.

These volunteers are living the Movement’s Fundamental Principles. Agreed 50 years ago in Vienna, the seven Fundamental Principles are what make the Movement unique, effective and global. The first Four Fundamental Principles – Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality and Independence – guide our work and the work of many humanitarian organisations. But for the Movement they are indivisible from our other three principles: Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality. Taken together, these Principles define the Movement, and keep us practical, focused, balanced and influential.

The British Red Cross, working with other members of the Movement, has carried out research in Lebanon, Somalia, Northern Ireland and six other contexts to capture evidence of exactly how the Fundamental Principles are working. BRC’s evidence from nine countries will be published by ICRC in the upcoming volume of the International Review of the Red Cross, a special volume examining the Fundamental Principles, due out in December 2015.

The research has confirmed that the Fundamental Principles are not theoretical – they are practical tools for gaining access and initiating programmes with new groups of vulnerable people, and they are useful precisely because they are practical. They work for local and national organisations just as much as international organisations. The Principles are useful not just in conflict situations, but also in times of uncertainty or civil unrest.

The Principles are extremely important for acceptance, establishing services based on need, and pushing for humanitarian space. Work explaining the Principles needs to happen in peacetime, in an ongoing dialogue with authorities, the public and the media; it cannot wait until the situation unravels.

How does the current refugee and migrant crisis show our Principles in action? The Principle of Humanity compels us to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it’s found. With this in mind, we could not turn away from this emergency. Universality has helped us build a truly global movement – one that is able to help people in Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, the UK and almost any other country along their route.

Impartiality means we don’t discriminate but simply focus on those most in need, so much of our help this summer has gone to older people, young children and people with disabilities. And Independence means our commitment to helping refugees has not wavered even as Europe’s politicians stall over how and when to act.

Yet again, the Principles have proved their worth. In Vienna this week, we gather to mark 50 years since their creation. This summer has shown us that, whether people’s crises spring from migration, conflict, natural disaster or any other emergency, these seven simple but brilliant tools are as powerful today as they were in 1965.

Craig Burnett also contributed to this piece.


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