Ethics in disaster response

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is founded on an ideal: to alleviate human suffering whomever it affects and wherever and however it occurs. The seven Fundamental Principles are the basis for the Movement’s action at all times. More broadly, the Movement is constantly re-examining and refining the way in which it works in order to ensure that its actions are in the best interests of the people it seeks to serve.

The ethics of humanitarian action have been further articulated in the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. The Code of Conduct was developed in 1994 by the International Federation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and six other leading aid agencies and represented a huge leap forward in setting standards for the conduct of disaster relief operations. It reasserts the basic humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and independence and incorporates more recent development concepts such as respect for culture, participation, sustainability, accountability and dignity in images.

The Code’s ten principles highlight, among other things, the right of disaster-affected populations to receive humanitarian assistance without discrimination and the crucial role played by women in disaster-prone communities. Emphasis is also placed on protecting and preserving the dignity of beneficiaries. The Code has three annexes containing recommendations for governments of disaster-affected countries, donor governments and intergovernmental organizations. The general thrust of these recommendations is the need to ensure rapid access to disaster victims, timely delivery of appropriate assistance and respect for the independence and impartiality of humanitarian organizations.

Another such initiative is the Sphere project, launched in 1997 by the Movement and a group of non-governmental organizations. One of the main pillars of the Sphere project is the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. The Humanitarian Charter upholds the right of people affected by disaster or armed conflict to life with dignity and thus to assistance to meet their basic needs. This right is enshrined not only in international humanitarian law but also in international human rights and refugee law. It is up to governments to guarantee this right, while humanitarian agencies can provide assistance where it is needed. The Humanitarian Charter further underscores the distinction that must be made during armed conflict between combatants and non-combatants and the principle of non-refoulement (that no refugee shall be sent to a country in which his/her life or freedom is threatened). The Minimum Standards specify the required levels of service in water supply, sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter, site planning and health care.

Recently, particular focus has been placed on two key aspects of humanitarian action:

  • Quality – ensuring a minimum standard of service;
  • Accountability – being answerable to those who receive the assistance and those who finance it.

Linking these two aspects is an initiative to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system, especially towards the beneficiaries.

At the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999, states party to the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement pledged to "support efforts to develop minimum practical standards for the delivery of humanitarian assistance such as those elaborated in the Sphere project."

When a major natural or man-made emergency occurs, all three components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement cooperate to allow for the most efficient utilization of humanitarian resources. 

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) National Societies

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