IRRC No. 288

From humanitarian assistance to “intervention on humanitarian grounds”?

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While States ever more ardently defend their sovereignty, which does little to improve international cooperation, and as the application of humanitarian law in armed conflicts declines, men of good will throughout the world are doing their utmost to reverse these trends. The century now drawing to a close has witnessed a plethora of private initiatives taken in an effort to temper reasons of State by more humane considerations. Many non-governmental organizations, some symbolically styling themselves “without borders”, have taken over where governments can no longer cope, organizing relief, combating drought, preserving the environment or improving sanitary conditions. These voluntary organizations whose vocation is to serve mankind are without question pursuing humanitarian aims as defined in the first Red Cross principle, which is “to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found”, and whose “purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being”. Emergency medical assistance organizations, stating that they wish to remain independent of the powers that be, demanding freedom of action to help all victims and encouraged by the example set by Henry Dunant and the ICRC, do not hesitate to claim that their activities fall within the terms of an as yet unwritten body of law entitling them to bring assistance to needy civilian communities, even against the will of the government. Indeed, they believe that receiving proper care is one of the basic human rights of the individual, wheresoever and whosoever he may be. Such basic rights know no national boundary. While awaiting recognition of their activities, the duty to intervene is created by moral considerations.

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