Home Institution

Brown University

Publication Date

Spring 2019

Program Name

Switzerland: Global Health and Development Policy


Aim: To examine how do humanitarian organizations apply, or fail to apply, the humanitarian principles through humanitarian negotiations in modern conflict settings.

Methods: A literature review identified relevant peer-reviewed and grey literature on international humanitarian norms and law, the landscape of modern conflict, and existing guidelines on humanitarian negotiations. Five semi-structured interviews were conducted with experts in humanitarian negotiations chosen on the basis of their relevant background. A coded analysis of these interviews was conducted to identify major themes and subthemes in responses.

Background: Multiple international mechanisms outline the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence and States, non-State armed groups (NSAGs), and organizations’ responsibilities to uphold these principles. Negotiations are essential to upholding these principles. While limited existing guidelines on the process of negotiations, modern conflicts with a growing number of NSAGs render negotiations, and upholding the humanitarian principles, increasingly complex.

Discussion: The criminalization of negotiators, lack of understanding between negotiators, and a lack of consensus across the humanitarian sector pose a very real danger to the operationalization of humanitarian principles in their original conceptions. However, successful humanitarian negotiations are only feasible with the ideas surrounding the principles because 1) perceptions of upholding the principles results in increased legitimacy for humanitarian organizations, and 2) the principles are essential as dynamic ethical guidelines when making compromises.

Conclusion: The current operationalization of the humanitarian principles is not one of measurable outcomes, but rather, it is one of rhetoric, of engraining the concepts behind the principles – that all humans have the right to dignified life regardless of who they are and where they live – in the values and practices of all stakeholders in humanitarian negotiations.


Development Studies | Ethics and Political Philosophy | International and Area Studies | International and Intercultural Communication | International Humanitarian Law | International Relations | Peace and Conflict Studies | Policy History, Theory, and Methods | Politics and Social Change | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Article Location