Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action


  • Thomas G. Weiss

    1. Presidential Professor of Political Science at The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. As Research Professor at Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies (1990-98), he held several administrative assignments (including Director of the Global Security Program and Associate Dean of the Faculty), was Executive Director of the Academic Council on the UN System, and codirected the Humanitarianism and War Project. His most recent book is Military-Civilian Interactions: Intervening in Humanitarian Crises (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).
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      For their thoughtful suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this essay, I would like to thank David P. Forsythe, S. Neil MacFarlane, Ian McAllister, Larry Minear, and Peter Uvin, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, for having challenged me to develop these ideas for the Second Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum, June 5–7, 1998. Responsibility for the views expressed and any remaining errors in fact or interpretation are mine.


The tragedies of the past decade have led to an identity crisis among humanitarians. Respecting traditional principles of neutrality and impartiality and operating procedures based on consent has created as many problems as it has solved. A debate is raging between “classicists,” who believe that humanitarian action can be insulated from politics, and various “political humanitarians,” who are attempting to use politics to improve relief and delivery in war zones

This essay examines the pros and cons of impartial versus political humanitarianism and differing approaches across a spectrum of actors, including the classicists, led by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who believe that humanitarian action can and should be completely insulated from politics; the “minimalists,” who “aim to do no harm” in delivering relief; the “maximalists,” who have a more ambitious agenda of employing humanitarian action as part of a comprehensive strategy to transform conflict; and the “solidarists,” exemplified by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), who choose sides and abandon neutrality and impartiality as well as reject consent as a prerequisite for intervention. The essay argues that there is no longer any need to ask whether politics and humanitarian action intersect. The real question is how this intersection can be managed to ensure more humanized politics and more effective humanitarian action.