The Fundamental Principles Turn 50

François Bugnion, Photo: ©ICRC

François Bugnion, Photo: ©ICRC

In 2015, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement celebrates the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Since 1965, the Fundamental Principles — humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality — have guided National Societies, the ICRC and the IFRC when they faced difficult choices. As the first representative of the ICRC in Cambodia after the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979), I myself was confronted with a delicate situation that had to be decided in the light of the Fundamental Principles. (To read these principles in their entirety, click here.)

As we were discussing with the government in Phnom Penh about putting in place a vast relief action in favour of the genocide survivors, several tens of thousands of refugees were in effect stuck at the border with Thailand. They were still inside Cambodia, in territory controlled by the Khmer Rouge. Their situation was dramatic and the ICRC decided to come to their aid. The government of Phnom Penh saw this operation as a violation of their national sovereignty and they threatened to expel the ICRC if it didn’t cease the relief operations via Thailand. The ICRC therefore faced a difficult choice that it resolved in light of the principle of Impartiality. 

This example highlights the importance of the Fundamental Principles. Of all the resolutions adopted at International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the resolution concerning these principles is the most important, the one most often referred to and the one that has most strongly contributed to guiding the work of the Movement and ensuring its coherence.

However, it would be mistaken to believe that the Fundamental Principles originated with this formal adoption. From the very outset, the Movement consciously followed a number of fundamental principles dictated by the mission assigned to it and reflected in the resolutions of the founding conference of 1863, which gave birth to the Red Cross. These principles were also reflected in article 6 of the original Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field of August 1864, which marked also the creation of contemporary international humanitarian law.

Thereafter, there were numerous references to the fundamental principles. Since 1869, in order to be accepted as members of the Movement, new National Societies were required to observe the fundamental principles. On the other hand, until the Second World War, the Movement made little effort towards reaching a universally accepted formulation of those principles.

Click to see all 6 7 principals

While the Movement was constant in laying claim to these fundamental principles, it appeared unwilling, or unable, to set them down in a form that would be binding on all its members. The drawbacks of this situation became brutally apparent during the Second World War, when references to the fundamental principles failed to prevent serious abuses from being committed by certain components of the Movement.

After the Second World War, both the ICRC and the IFRC sought to set these principles down in a form that would be universally accepted. The momentum for decisive progress came from Jean Pictet’s book Red Cross Principles, published in 1955. Following its publication, the ICRC and the IFRC set up a joint commission, which set down the principles in a declaration containing seven articles. This declaration was adopted by the International Conference of the Red Cross in Vienna in 1965.

This declaration of the Fundamental Principles represented a charter for the Movement. On the one hand, it permitted the adoption of a universally accepted statement of the principles that the Movement had advocated from the start without actually agreeing on their definition. On the other, it gave these principles new legal effect, making them a source of duties for all the components of the Movement.

Although states are not directly bound by the Fundamental Principles, they are required, by virtue of the statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to respect the duty that the components of the Movement have to observe them.

For the Movement, the principles have served as an extraordinarily effective guide during these past 50 years, as demonstrated by our experiences in Cambodia in 1979. Since we have had these principles, on which we depend, we should do nothing to weaken their authority. We should be ready, however, to continue to analyse the fashion in which they are put into action and continue to put them into practice in all our actions.

Written by François Bugnion
Article first published by The Magazine of the International Red Cross Red and Red Crescent Movement