The principal motivation behind humanitarian action is to save lives and alleviate suffering while upholding and restoring personal dignity. Accordingly, humanity is the principal driver for responding to crises, whether triggered by conflict, violence, or natural or man-made disasters.
Humanitarian actors distinguish themselves from other responders to crises through their commitment to impartiality. This means that humanitarian action is based solely on need, with priority given to the most urgent cases irrespective of factors such as race, nationality, gender, religious belief, political opinion, or class. The neutrality of humanitarian action is further upheld when humanitarian actors refrain from taking sides in hostilities or engaging in political, racial, religious, or ideological controversies. At the same time, independence requires humanitarian actors to be autonomous. They are not to be subject to control, subordination, or influence by political, economic, military or other non-humanitarian objectives.
‘Principled humanitarianism' is a commitment to meet the assistance and protection needs of affected populations in a way that is distinct and separate from political and other motivations.
Humanitarian actors must acquaint themselves with and consistently apply these principles, in particular in situations of armed conflict.
During an armed conflict involving multiple actors, adhering to humanitarian principles requires a clear division of labour between humanitarian and other actors, notably those in the political and military realms. Military actors can include the armed forces of the host State, but also international and regional forces, armed non-State actors, and UN peace operations. By affirming complementary roles with these actors, humanitarian actors can maximise the protection of civilians.
As an illustration, most UN peace operations have a mandate to protect civilians. This role can lead them to patrol high risk areas ensuring the security of refugee and/or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, clear areas of explosive ordnance or unexploded remnants of war or facilitate voluntary return or relocation.
UNHCR and the Protection Cluster should work to complement such efforts, for example by providing updated protection analysis based on a solid conflict sensitive analysis. Further guidance on coordination between humanitarian and military actors can be found in the Entry on civil-military coordination.
For guidance on UNHCR's work in armed conflict, which can involve dealing with a UN Peacekeeping mission’s presence that has a protection of civilians mandate, please see the section on ‘Protection of Civilians – UNHCR's role’ in the ToolKit on Protection in Armed Conflict.
The toolkit also provides guidance on engaging with weapon bearers and on how to conduct humanitarian negotiation. In an armed conflict, humanitarian negotiation plays a crucial role in gaining or improving access and creating the conditions for effective protection.
For this reason, UNHCR has established a strategic partnership with the Centre for Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) to bolster the capacity of its staff and partners in negotiating issues related to protection on the front lines.