Paper: The (Core) Humanitarian Principles: Content, Character and Contemporary Controversies

Paper details

Paper authors Marina Sharpe
In panel on Depoliticizing humanitarian action: motives, practices, consequences
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


That all humanitarian action should be undertaken in accordance with the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence has become a truism, which exempts the principles from fulsome critical scrutiny. What the humanitarian principles really mean and particularly where they come from is rarely addressed. This lacuna transcends academic disciplines and even affects practitioners. (For example, in the depiction of the ‘core humanitarian standard’ in the latest Sphere Handbook, ‘humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence’ encircle beneficiaries, however the four principles are not otherwise discussed in the Handbook’s 400 plus pages.) In scholarship, the lack of analysis is particularly pronounced in the (Anglophone) international law literature. There is little international law scholarship on the humanitarian principles, and seemingly none that addresses all four principles together in one work; the legal analyses that do exist focus on impartiality and neutrality, perhaps in part because the important judgement in Nicaragua addressed the former principle and both principles have autonomous international humanitarian law meanings. This paper responds to this gap by critically analyzing the historical origins, legal character and normative content of the humanitarian principles. It then invokes this analysis to demonstrate how stressing the principles’ legal character is one way to depoliticise them and to frame discussion of whether such depoliticization even desirable.



Marina Sharpe