On humanity: a guiding principle for humanitarian actors

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
25 May 2016

Humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) commonly agree that there are four major principles that guide their action: neutrality, impartiality, humanity and independence. These four principles interlink, without any one of them being more important than the others.

In this second article looking at the meaning of these humanitarian principles to the individual practitioner of humanitarian action, I draw on my own and others’ experience to take a brief look at how humanity is interpreted on a daily basis.


Defining humanity

I find that the best definition of humanity is the one found in the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross. Established in 1979, this document has stood the test of time as a guiding voice for humanitarian actors. It states:

“The Red Cross endeavours 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, co-operation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.”1

Thus humanity incorporates all these ideals: preventing suffering, mutual understanding, friendship, co-operation, lasting peace, and respect for the human being.

What does this principle of humanity mean in practice

This concept of humanity might seem a lofty, and probably an unattainable, principle. It may lead humanitarian actors to wonder: how can I, a volunteer on a relatively short assignment, promote mutual understanding, friendship, co-operation, and lasting peace amongst all peoples?

However, is that not the whole point of a principle? It is a foundation upon which our daily work is built. It is not an objective or a goal. Rather, it is the basis upon which our activities are predicated.

The most fundamental aspect of humanity must be respect for the human being. The purpose of humanitarian aid is to come to the aid of those who suffer, and to act preventively to ensure, insofar as possible, that that suffering is limited. Yet simply preventing or alleviating suffering is not enough. It is the shared humanity, and the recognition of that shared humanity, that gives depth to this action.

The second key point in the principle that I wish to underline is the focus on alleviating and preventing human suffering “wherever it may be found. Edmond Kaiser, founder of the NGO Terre des Hommes, also created Sentinelles, a team of people dedicated to reaching out to the most vulnerable individuals, wherever they are.2 How better to illustrate this element of the principle? Those who suffer are not the masses. They are all, each and every one of them, individuals. As humanitarian actors, we must remind ourselves that while we need to work on incredibly important themes such as reducing gender inequality, we also need to see, each time, the fellow human beings that suffer due to these injustices.

The principle of humanity, therefore, encompasses both the truly global and the individual: the need to reach out to every single person, according to his or her needs.

Experiencing this principle of humanity

This concept of humanity is perhaps best illustrated with an example from my experience.

Early in my career, I was tasked with interviewing detainees on a one-to-one basis, alone, without witness or even an interpreter. The person I replaced in this task warned me: “You need to see all the detainees. Do not miss a single one”. Every day for nearly two years, I spoke individually with at least 15 to 20 detainees. At first, I did not fully understand why. But I kept at it – I always managed to see all of my clients. I often became extremely fatigued, and some early evening meetings probably did not bring that much to those I was interviewing. Colleagues questioned my work: why see so many of them? Surely sampling would be enough? If our objective is to come to a comprehensive understanding of the system in which they are incarcerated, it is not necessary to talk with each and every detainee.

However, one thing became clear to me as time passed and my experience grew: I was on the right track. There were two aspects to this that I would like to highlight, which relate to the principle of humanity as encompassing both the global and the individual:

  1. I had no choice in the order in which the detainees were brought to me. The detaining authority would always keep until the end the more difficult cases, in the hope that I would go home before I was due to see them. Were I not to see everybody, then I would miss those probably with the highest need – and the worst problems. These were the ones who might be the most serious victims of the system. So seeing everybody, or at least as many people as possible, gave me a much sharper view into the treatment that the system inflicted on them, while also allowing me to be at the side of those who needed it the most.
  2. Our visits aimed at bringing humanity back into the lives of the people we saw. The detainees were each going through a difficult time, and often needed a reminder that the outside world existed. We brought them news of their families, and passed on their own greetings home. Of course, many were guilty, sometimes even of extremely serious acts. But then, surely that would heighten the need to bring back into the situation the idea that not all is conflict and violence. The detainees all had families eagerly waiting for news and the ideal situation would have been to also give all of these families some reassurance. While this was not possible, I wanted to do my best. Humanity encompasses more than those immediately involved.

The principle of humanity also means, although the word is not there in full letters, showing empathy, showing “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”3 This empathy needs to come straight out of our shared humanity: I may not have lived through the same traumatic events, but I can understand, I can sympathise, I can empathize, and I can show that I can identify with them. If in the stress and the urgency of the situation I forget this, if the mass of people seems too overwhelming, then I will not be doing my job. At least, not doing it fully, not doing it well – not serving those in need, according to their needs.

Are we all human?

One of the fundamental human traits is the capacity to create or enter into conflict. Therefore, the principle of humanity may be considered a misnomer, to put it mildly.4 It is also striking that, when we do enter into conflict, we find it very difficult to respect our adversary. If I disagree with you, then obviously you must be a cretin. In armed conflict, this is often taken to extremes. Hate becomes a way to mobilize resources and mobilize people. The enemy is hardly – if at all – human, and needs annihilating. If we do not annihilate him, then that enemy is bound to do even worse to us. Cliché? Maybe. But all too sadly true.

Mobilization can take place around a very local theme. The Rwandan genocide was based on the myth of society being divided into two separate, opposing ethnic groupings. The Bosnian war was organized around the religious affiliation of three communities. Even two world wars were triggered by apparently local ethnic issues – the unity of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (the aim of the Black Hand, behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) in 1914, the unity of Germanic peoples in 1939. We see that in such cases, common humanity is indeed forgotten in the pursuit of group cohesion and dominance.

More surprising, perhaps, is the hatred that is demonstrated by those who pursue causes that they say are to benefit all of humanity. Communism, for example, is a totalitarian ideology that demonized its adversaries. We remember with horror the extreme interpretation of such dogma that led to the Cambodian genocide. Some proponents of Islamism are massacring people of other faiths, or even people of their own faith whose beliefs or practices do not quite match their own. In European history, the 1209 massacre at Beziers is just one example of Crusaders butchering their fellow Christians alongside the heretics, using as excuse the fact that God would then be able to sort out the good from the bad, thereby absolving themselves from any potential guilt. And need we remind ourselves of the human cost of “spreading democracy” in the Middle East in recent years? A most noble cause, which had the unfortunate side effect of bringing death and destruction to entire communities – often justified by the actions of the terrorists who hated freedom... Throughout history, we as humans have shown ourselves to be adept at dehumanizing each other in the name of a variety of causes.

Humanitarian action is the complete reverse of this. It is the embodiment of the recognition of our joint humanity. This attitude is not always understood or appreciated. The hate that warmongers generate can often be directed not only towards their immediate enemies, but also towards anyone professing to be neutral or anyone willing to bring a message of humanity. We are all too aware of the violence that is directed towards humanitarians, sometimes to restrict or put an end to our emergency action, sometimes simply because we are seen as the enemy. In these situations, paradoxically, we are the enemy to those who use hate and destruction as their means.

The fact that emergency humanitarian aid and protection are very often deployed in situations of armed conflict means that we will continue to see these clashes of philosophies. We must assume that in many situations, the bullet will prove to be stronger than the tongue.

Where does that leave the principle of humanity?

The world is often presented in Manichean terms: good or evil? Victim or butcher? With us or against us? As we have seen, conflict – and especially armed conflict – exacerbates this tendency we have to categorise and reject those who oppose us, to the extent of dehumanizing them. Seeing the other and recognizing our shared humanity means accepting that there are differences, and that these differences are part of the human mosaic. It does not necessarily mean liking the other, only accepting their right to exist, and to exist as they are. Once we understand that, we can start to seek out those aspects in the other that will help us reach a common understanding.

It is not easy. When I am on my bicycle, I have a lot of difficulty in seeing the shared humanity with motorcyclists. When I am on my motorcycle, I find it almost impossible to see car drivers as human. Everywhere around us we see humans categorizing each other, rejecting each other, on the basis of often imagined beliefs or behaviours. Anti-Semitism springs to mind: the absurd rejection of millions of human beings on the basis of a religion. Also homophobia: in most countries and cultures, homosexuals are discriminated against or hounded, even killed, on the ridiculous idea that they are not behaving as normal, decent human beings should.

We all know that there are no real differences between human beings (perhaps with the exception of my mother in law, who eats too many hot peppers). So any one of us, with a minimum capacity to empathize, can relate to any other one of us. I know I am belabouring the point here, but it is important. Each one of us contains the same grains of humanity. Therefore, each one of us is capable of finding those grains in the other – even should they be hot pepper grains.

Humanity towards all

Above, I related the story of visiting detainees, and offering each and every one of them the service of being with them and listening to them, of being interested in them and their story. Unless they were innocent of the accusations against them, as was surely sometimes the case, they were all considered as criminals by the detaining authority. Some had killed. Others had planned attacks against civilians. Why should I be bringing humanity to such people?

This, to me, is the essence of the principle of humanity. When I am faced with the prison guard wielding a metal bar to goad detainees, an interrogator who is reputed to excel at waterboarding, or a group leader who has sent countless youngsters on suicide missions deliberately to kill civilians, I need to find that common humanity. I need to be able to use it, to garner it so that they too benefit from a bit more humanity than they otherwise would.

Yes, here, I have changed optic, deliberately. Humanity is not limited to obliging us to work in favour of victims. Humanity means not just the good guys, the innocents, the defenceless – it means all of us.

The obvious argument against my plea for a common humanity is that we are often faced with psychopaths, the criminally insane, the Hitlers of this world. I am no expert at psychiatry, but I do realize that there must be a few people beyond the pale of normal human intercourse. Such people should be set aside, cared for by specialists. Yet not everybody we see as a psychopath is ill. Many are proponents of, and executors of, horrendous inhumane acts, and are totally responsible for their actions. Reaching out to such people is not only an uncertain endeavour, it is an extremely risky business. I maintain, nevertheless, that there is inside them all the elements of that shared humanity – although I am willing to stand corrected.

What is humanity for?

Turning away again from the perpetrators, I have outlined the principle of humanity as it guides our action. How does that translate concretely?

As we have seen, humanity is a principle that forces us to do something which might seem against the grain, which is to consider that all human beings, even psychopaths, are fellow human beings. We are all equal. We are all to be respected, and treated with dignity. It is very difficult to integrate this into our daily lives and our daily work. Prejudices which are hidden beneath the surface will suddenly crop up, and somebody might say to us, “isn't that contrary to your professed humanism?"

Humanity is a core principle. It is a principle that needs to be constantly refreshed. It is surely the least understood of humanitarian principles, but without it, the other principles lose their meaning.

When we do apply this principle, we are transforming our action. We give consistency to the other core humanitarian principles. We gain a new insight into our mandate.

There are some very immediate applications, of which I can give two examples:

  1. We put behind us the traditional concepts of victim versus perpetrator. They serve no useful purpose. To be one or the other is only a transient condition, not a defining attribute. To see people as victims above all dehumanises them. Victims do not need pity. We need to ensure that all human beings maintain or regain their dignity, and treating them as victims is not conducive to that end.
  2. We realise that we should not be following media interest. Serving humanity means just that. We cannot divide the world between those who need assistance and protection and those who do not. There will always be more fashionable situations, for which more money, more attention, and more media coverage are granted. But this cannot – should not – prevent the humanitarian worker from taking a neutral, impartial and independent stance, and using meagre resources where they are needed.

In conclusion

When it comes down to the bare essentials of humanitarian action, humanity is all we have. It is the recognition of the shared humanity that will allow us to reach out to those with guns and to influence their behaviour. It is the recognition of shared humanity that will help us to reach out and help others in a meaningful way, even if we do not have the wherewithal to do much for them. So as I see it – as I have lived it throughout my career – this principle is simultaneously lofty and unattainable and down to earth, practical, and useful. It informs the way I relate to the people with whom my work brings me into contact, reminding me that respect, whether for perpetrators, victims, or anyone else, is key to the success of humanitarian action.

I hope that these reflections have helped us better grasp the high ideals as expressed at the start of the article, and see that they can inform our view of the world around us, and then translate into a concrete set of actions. Of the four interlinked basic humanitarian principles – neutrality, impartiality, humanity, and independence – humanity is probably the most basic, in that without it, no meaningful humanitarian action can take place.


I dedicate this article to Markus Z, who died not long after having taught me to make sure I didnt miss anyone.


Note: the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the ICRC have come up with a useful little Code of Conduct which helps translates these principles into a practical format, the first one being “The humanitarian imperative comes first.”5


About the author

Martin Damary is PHAP's Office Manager in Geneva. He has extensive experience with the ICRC and was the Managing Director of Geneva Call from 2005 to 2010.



1 The International Committee of the Red Cross (1979), The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross.
2 http://www.sentinelles.org/a-propos/la-fondation?language=en
3 Oxford Dictionary, Definition of empathy.
4 A friend reminded me of that a few days ago, telling me how he had taken a child to a play meant to depict war negatively, but who told him afterwards, “I really enjoyed that”
5 http://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/disasters/code-of-conduct/code-english.pdf