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Challenges to Principled Humanitarian Action: Perspectives from Four Countries

The humanitarian principles — humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence — are under increased scrutiny and pressure. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to an increased understanding of the perceived and actual challenges humanitarians face in operational contexts as they apply the principles. The politicisation of aid, security concerns, counterterrorism measures, an increasing diversity of actors and a renewed assertiveness among states and non-state actors are just some of the elements that make principled humanitarian action difficult. Despite these challenges, the value of the humanitarian principles for humanitarians has been repeatedly reaffirmed.  At the foundation of this paper is the recognition that the four principles are essential for humanitarians to meet the needs of affected populations.

The paper provide a snapshot of four case studies; Colombia, Nepal, northern Syria and South Sudan. Through a combination of field research, headquarters interviews, desk research, and a webinar, views and observations are presented from the humanitarian community. These observations provide a glimpse into the challenges faced by principled humanitarians. As a result the paper puts forward seven recommendations intended to assist humanitarians and states to sharpen tools and strengthen approaches when implementing principled humanitarian protection and assistance.

To complement these insights, an addendum to this study provides perspectives from selected members of the donor community. This research was conducted through interviews with state representatives in Geneva, aiming to understand how donors perceive their responsibilities in upholding the humanitarian principles and the Good Humanitarian Donorship Principles. This final chapter highlights challenges faced by states while supporting principled humanitarian action, particularly in conflict zones. On the basis of this research, additional recommendations for both states and humanitarians are proposed to strengthen the adherence to the humanitarian principles.

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